Fred Bass, co-owner of New York’s massive used bookstore, fondly known as the Strand, died of heart failure yesterday (Jan. 3) at 89.
Bass transformed his father’s modest store into the four-story bookshop immediately recognizable to New Yorkers and tourists today: The store on Broadway, with its red-and-white awning over $1-book carts lining the southern-facing exterior.
Bass owned and ran the store with his daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden, for thirty years, a big promotion from when he swept floors as a teenager and she rented out books by the foot in her thirties. What the two have achieved as a joint force is unique in the bookselling world.
There are two basic things a good bookstore can provide: The delightful maze of human-curated shelves, or the satisfaction of efficiently getting the book you’re looking for. Amazon has done its part in taking away business from the bookstore chains that have excelled at the latter, like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The now Everything Store once sold nothing but books, and one way it’s done so successfully is by offering deep discounts. The Strand, though nowhere near as ubiquitous as Amazon.com, has been able to tout dizzying volume at the same time it’s maintained a beloved shopping experience.
Bass’s father, Ben Bass, opened his store on Fourth Avenue, a part of a strip of bookstores called “Book Row,” for $600 in 1927, about $8,400 today. During the depression, he was so broke from his used book business that he put his son and daughter into foster care in the East Village, according to the New York Times. His son, Fred, went to work for his father shelving and buying books. Eventually he took over the store with a voracious appetite for book-buying and expanded it.
The sheer volume of the Strand, a book warehouse with an indie store feel, has helped it stand out. By 1957, the other 47 stores in Book Row had closed, while the Strand had moved to a bigger location on Broadway. In 1997, Bass bought the building. His tagline, “eight miles of books,” is now officially 18, though it may be closer to 23. Bass also added three pop-up locations around Manhattan.
“He had this thing of trying to buy everything he could,” Bass says in a video for Strand, about his father’s buying strategies. “At first I used to think he was crazy: Why are we buying extra books when we haven’t sold all these? We just kept buying and buying. It was the fact that you can’t sell a book you don’t have. You’ve got to have the book in stock.”
What Amazon has done well—sell its vast inventory to you for super cheap—Bass did first. And with tote bags.
Nearly all the store’s books are sold at a discount, ranging anywhere from a couple dollars off a new title to less than a $1 for a classic or a book that’s run its course. In a 1996 C-SPAN interview, Bass says of the review-book shelves, “There are probably more books down here at half price than most new bookstores have.” Customers are lured in by the outdoor bargain rack and stay for the cheeky signage and locally designed merch. Bass says he improved on his father’s pure passion for the books he sold by focusing on the book displays and improving customer relationships. Today clutching one of Strand’s 100 or so bag designs is a proud display of reader identity.
“The Bass family is definitely willing—they want to keep up with the times,” says Leigh Altshuler, marketing and communications director for the store. “It’s not what you’d think of a 90-year-old family own business, very set in its ways. They’re willing to try new things.”