Fred Bass, the owner of New York City’s iconic Strand Book Store, died this morning surrounded by his loved ones. He was 89 years old.
Bass was born on June 28, 1928 in New York’s East Village. The Strand had been founded a year earlier by Bass’s father with an investment of $600 — $300 borrowed and $300 he had saved. The store survived the Great Depression and by the advent of World War II, Fred, aged 13, had started working in the store and traveling around the city to acquire books for the store to sell.
After graduating from Brooklyn College with a degree in literature and fighting in the Korean War, Bass dedicated the remainder of his life to bookselling, turning The Strand into one of the most famous bookstores in the world. The Strand has served as the set for numerous movie and television shows and is a now a tourist attraction.
Under Bass’s leadership, the store became known for its deep, eclectic and often seemingly random selection of titles as well as for some innovative bookselling practices. For example, Bass, to the chagrin of some publishers, openly traded in galley copies and ARCs that he bought from literary critics and, in the age before widespread book discounting, sold these “reviewer’s copies” at half the cover price; the practice helped made the store a top destination for in-the-know literati in the city. In 1986, it also launched a then unique “Books by the Foot” department, which created custom book collections, based on a customer’s literary taste or the color of their décor.
For decades a sign out in front of the main store touted “8 miles of books,” but an expansion in 2005 prompted the store to change the sign to change it to “18 miles of books.” Today the store stocks some 2.5 million titles. It is the last survivor on a stretch of 4th Avenue between Eighth Street and 14th Street that was known in the mid-20th century as “Book Row” and was home to more than 30 used bookstores. In addition to its main store, The Strand also operates several book kiosks around New York City, including one in Central Park and another in Times Square.
Bass’s bookselling prowess prompted the writer Calvin Trillin to pen a poetic paean to the man:
A Day at the Strand with Fred Bass
Fred’s buying books, Fred’s selling books. They’re stuffed in crannies and in nooks and shelves
held up by bolts and hooks. He buys from menshen and from shnooks and folks who smell like
spoiled Chinooks (and even them he never rooks). He sells books valued for their looks like picture
books on glens and brooks, plus poetry and books by cooks, and mysteries whose cops catch
crooks. Fred’s selling books, Fred’s buying books. There’s no doubt why he’s done so well. The
man knows how to buy and sell.
Bass was married and had two children: Stephen, who was born in 1953 and died in 2001, and Nancy, born in 1961. Nancy joined the business in 1986 and she has served as the co-manager of the store along with her father and will continue to oversee operations.
On her father’s passing, his daughter reflected, “I grew up at the Strand, at first sharpening pencils, shelving books and answering phones. For over 30 years, I have had the privilege of working alongside of my dad managing the store. He never had an office and loved when customers told him they enjoyed “getting lost in the stacks”. He spent all of his time behind his buying desk, eager to see what treasures would come across it. He felt working with books was the best job in the world.”