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Fred Bass, Maestro of the Strand

Strand Bookstore
Max Ferguson: Strand Book Store, 2009; click to expand

The news this week of the death, at age eighty-nine, of Fred Bass, the legendary bookseller who made the Strand into the cultural landmark it is, put me in mind of an afternoon I spent with him more than a decade ago. I had gone to the Strand to learn something about the store’s highly-trafficked used-book buying counter, and the people who worked there. It was a place with which I had a more than passing familiarity. Like any number of young literary-minded New Yorkers with more ambition than money (or storage space), I had long made the trek to 12th Street and Broadway, my satchel laden with review copies. There was something ignoble in this, not to mention back-breaking—friends who worked at music magazines had simply to phone someone to come over and buy their review CDs (when those were still a thing).

It was, though, an authentic part of a hoary, if not frequently discussed, literary tradition. “A great deal goes on behind the scene in the literary world,” the jaded, infinitely corruptible journalist Étienne Lousteau tells Lucien Chardon, the aspiring poet from the provinces, in Balzac’s Lost Illusions. One of those things, he notes, is the “low trade” in selling publisher’s review copies, which Lousteau has taken to its most perverted end: reviewing books without actually reading them so he can make more money selling them with uncut pages. A century later, George Orwell, in his essay “In Defence of the Novel,” passingly refers to “the hack reviewer, who has a wife and a family and has got to earn his guinea, not to mention the half-crown per vol which he gets by selling his review copies.” More recently, in Bound to Last, the writer Sean Manning remembers his time working at the bookstore, and the “depressing” prospect of buying books with “publicity notices still sharply creased and tucked inside the front covers.” He despaired of “all the hours those authors had toiled, all their months and years of sacrifice, just for some reviewer to hawk it back to the Strand for two or three lousy bucks.”

The small dispatch I filed from that day at the Strand was, by one of those endless vicissitudes of Grub Street that any hack will recognize, not published by the magazine that had first expressed interest. It was not intended as a profile of Bass; rather, a small glance at this discreet place of transaction, where the higher calling of literature was brought down to its bare market essentials—and which, for me, had great drama, and sometimes the urgency of a payday loan window. But I remember sensing in Bass, beyond a slightly gruff exterior edged with a shrewdness gained from a lifetime in the trade, a man of great passion, a man who knew the innumerable and shifting currents of the book trade the way an old sailor knows the mutable sea. He was a character who could have come from a book.

*

The used-book buying counter at the Strand is roughly ten feet long by four feet wide. The wood surface is scratched and grooved with the traffic of decades of books, resined by the moist palms of generations of expectant sellers. On one side a decaying sign somewhat announces, in red letters, “SELL YOUR BOOKS HERE.” Below that a laser-printed sign announces, much more clearly, “SELL YOUR BOOKS HERE.”

There can be few book-minded New Yorkers who have not approached this counter at some point in their lives. Like some Ellis Island of the migrating volume, it stands like a rocky promontory, ready to receive the teeming literary tide. (Had it an Emma Lazarus, she might be moved to write: “Do Not Give Us Your Dog-Eared, Your Broken-Spined, Your Ex-Library w/Markings.”) Those would-be sellers can be sorted into several broad categories: impecunious editorial assistants, for whom a Friday lunchtime sale at the Strand may ensure that night’s revelry; the square-footage-minded apartment dweller who frantically heaves cartonfuls of books into the store—while their Volvo 240 sits hazard-blinking outside—to make way for a Jennifer convertible or a new baby’s crib back home; the disheveled street scavengers for whom a curbside What to Expect When You’re Expecting may be a meal ticket.

On a recent, typically busy Saturday at the Strand, a steady stream of sellers approached “Neil W.,” as he was name-tagged. Neil W. is compact and solid, has a stern face, a razor-backed thatch of short, gray hair, and like most buyers at the Strand wears a flannel shirt. A Strand veteran of more than thirty years, he has a booming voice with a gravel edge—put him on Parris Island and he’d have a platoonful of grunts doing one-armed push-ups in the rain. A twentysomething man with hipster dark glasses and an army jacket strained toward the desk with several Gristedes bags (paper) heaving with books. Neil W. began sifting through the books, which seemed to be mostly Oxford World’s Classics paperbacks. “Are these all paperbacks, sir?” he asked. The man nodded. “This stuff isn’t worth anything,” he soon announced. “I’m sorry, sir. No used paperback fiction.” The man, a bit stunned at the prospect of having to return home with the bags, rather meekly mumbled, “No used paperback fiction?” He seemed paralyzed with indecision, and after a few minutes, Neil W. barked: “Let’s move it, Sir!” He scrambled to collect his books as the next seller approached the counter.

For many years, I, too, have joined this procession, standing before clerks who seemed to me either munificent benefactors or intimidating magistrates, handing over books and wondering what strange science lay behind the price offered to me. (In moments of codependent-no-more anger, I have gone to other stores, and, disheartened by the result, always returned tome-in-hand to the Strand.) I have also been struck by the terse interactions going on near me, which often seem to revolve around the Strand’s buyer having to impart to the aspirant seller an unpleasant, philosophically daunting bit of news: that what they are attempting to sell has no value. Not everyone takes this well. As one local blogger notes in a florid, lengthy rant: “The process is baffling. The Buyer’s brusque. And by the end you’re thrilled to be out of there with whatever they’ve paid for the books… If I ever take the time to map New York’s circles of hell the Strand and the Buyer will be pretty far down. Lower than ticket-happy transit cops and Penny Crone, The Strand’s Buyer is a creature apart.”

Strand Bookstore
Fred Bass

Piqued by this vehemence and vitriol, I went down one afternoon to talk to Fred Bass, the Strand’s seventy-five-year-old-owner and, on most weekdays, still its resident book-buyer, peering over spectacles at stacks filled with Russian Folk Tales or The Da Vinci Code. “The first thing I tell people is: Books must be in good condition. They must be quality books that people still want. And they say, ‘What do you mean, how do I know?’ I can’t answer that.” Certain types of books—chess, for example—Bass will always take, while certain others he will almost certainly not. “You take things like biographies of has-been statesmen—like Gore, Humphrey, McGovern. That stuff’s not going to sell.” While bar codes and computers have helped give a shape to the Strand’s overwhelming inventory, a good deal of buying still proceeds by “feel,” as Bass described it. “You really can’t check every book. It’s too time-consuming.” Certain books are almost a conditioned reflex. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I must get five copies of that a day. We’re still selling ten or fifteen copies a week—my price is down to $3.95. Often, I put them on the dollar table because we have too many.” He scanned a backpackful of books a young woman has deposited on the counter. “Fifteen dollars,” he said. “Okay,” she said.

Bass has endured high drama on his seemingly prosaic watch. “I was doing the review copies on the main floor when a guy came in with quite a stack of books. Some other gentlemen who I didn’t know was standing on the side, looking at him and literally glaring at him. When I bought the books, this other guy came over and grabbed one of the books and said, ‘You son-of-a-bitch. I just sent this down to you by messenger this morning, and you couldn’t wait to sell it down here. I’ll see that you’ll never get a book from Random House again.’ The reviewer looked at him calmly, and said, ‘I guess Random House won’t get any more of my reviews.’” And then, there are the eccentrics. “One guy always used to say, ‘You know you’re paying me too much. I can’t take your money.’ He was nice guy, but a little crazy.”

When I asked Bass about Neil W., the imposing Saturday buyer, Bass said: “He’s got a rough edge about him. We try and soften it up. I’ve worked next to him where he said things in a very polite way and people get insulted. He’s said nothing wrong, it’s just the tone of his voice.” Whether this is inherent or the result of dealing with legions of people convinced that their Book of the Month Club editions must be valuable because they paid good money for them is an open question. “He’s tough,” Bass said. “He’s got people lined up and sellers start arguing with him. He doesn’t have the time, he cuts them off.” Bass, who possesses the air of a scholar, admits he, too, can get testy. “Every now and again I even lose it. Somebody comes in, the books are torn. They’re dirty. They don’t have covers on them. And I say, ‘Are you really trying to sell this?’ You just kind of wonder what goes through people’s minds.”

A few days later, I returned to the Strand. Bass waved a beige set of galley proofs at me. “This was in a batch yesterday,” he said. I recognized them as being of my own book. From mere seller, I had gone to sold.