Fred Bass with an oil painting of himself painted by artist Max Ferguson.
This past Friday, a hundred or so people milled about the second floor of the Strand sipping wine, picking at cheese platters, and talking about death. A celebration of the life of Strand Book Store owner Fred Bass, who passed away earlier this month at eighty-nine, was scheduled to begin in a few moments, but the death on everyone’s lips was not Fred’s. Instead, the chatter concerned the loss of two other New York City staples: the Lower East Side movie theater Landmark Sunshine Cinema had closed that past Sunday, and farther uptown, Lincoln Plaza Cinema was slated to shutter at the end of the month.
That the Strand is still standing seems almost a miracle. It has endured nine decades of metropolitan metamorphosis and been passed down through three generations of Bass owners. Of its peers on Book Row—a cutesy nickname for the cluster of used bookstores along Fourth Avenue in the twentieth century—the Strand is the lone survivor. Perhaps one element of its longevity was Fred himself, the tireless figurehead, who one employee described as “not just the Strand’s brain but also its heart and soul.”
Photos of Fred topped the display tables. Some of them showed him bouncing a kid on his knee, or grinning with his arm around a fellow soldier during his two-year stint in the army, but many depicted him hard at work. Fred got his start at the Strand at thirteen years old, sweeping the floors of what was then his father’s store. Nancy Bass Wyden, Fred’s daughter and successor, told me later that her father had usually worked ten hours a day, six days a week, for most of his life. “I want to stop,” he would say with a wink, “but my daughter will not fire me.” Legend has it that Fred was buried at sea in a vintage red Strand sweatshirt.
Straddling my backpack between my feet, performing the New York City awkward duck shuffle, I waited for the event to kick into motion. I struck up a conversation with a woman named Diane, an environmental-science professor at NYU Tandon. She had frequented the store for years, and though she’d never met Fred, she said she’d probably passed him countless times. We each grabbed a plastic-cupped gin concoction—Diane remarking that she didn’t usually opt for liquor—and turned our attention to the stage.
Bewildered tourists stumbled up from the first floor, blinking at the crowd and the cups set out in neat lines. Crusty Washington Square Park types lingered in corners, fraternizing with chic career editorial assistants. Curled up against a bookcase, headphones nestled in her ears, a teenager read a tattered copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Oregon senator Ron Wyden, Nancy Bass Wyden’s husband, emceed the tributes. Before handing the microphone over to the evening’s speakers, he established some ground rules. “There are two things you should know about Fred,” Senator Wyden said. “He hated long speeches, and he loved parties.”
In that spirit, the seven tributes that followed were short and sweet, illustrative of a man whose passion for books was surpassed perhaps only by his love of people. One employee recalled how Fred had allowed him to come in late for his Monday shifts during the summer so that he could spend the weekends on Fire Island—a getaway that was extremely important for the employee, a young gay man recently transplanted to the city. A longtime friend of Fred’s remarked that even when his routine tennis matches and long walks became difficult, the book master never once complained. And Nancy relayed stories of Fred in his final weeks, shouting out song requests to the family’s Amazon Alexa and serenading his wife of sixty-seven years with “The Girl from Ipanema.”
A rare hatless Gay Talese took the stage to praise the humbling effect of being surrounded by thousands upon thousands of books by other writers. Paul Krugman called the Strand the greatest bookstore in the world, adding, “What you find in a great bookstore is what you weren’t looking for.” When Fran Lebowitz took the stage, my new friend nudged me. “There’s your celebrity,” she said. “There she is.” In between a formal request for Senator Wyden to replace Chuck Schumer and a plea for Paul Krugman to explain Bitcoin, Fran lauded Fred, whom she had known since she was twenty. “Young people say to me, Fran, where’d you get those vintage glasses?” she said. “And I say, They’re not vintage; I just still have them. I felt the same way about Fred. Fred’s such an old-school guy, they’d say. Well, Fred’s not an old-school guy, I’d say. We just still have him.”
But what struck me more than the literary celebrities was the appearance of minor figures from my own New York history: there was the tiny, fuzzy-lipped older woman who would browse Golden Books at the shop I used to manage in Cobble Hill. And here was the chipper Penguin sales rep who played shuffleboard in my neighborhood every Monday night to “blow off steam.” I shuddered as I slipped past the Strand employee who once passed judgment on me for flipping art books for cash. “What you find in a great bookstore is what you weren’t looking for,” as Paul Krugman would say.
“To call the Strand an institution almost feels wrong,” Diane said to me at one point during the night, and I think I agree with her. Institution is a cheap word. It would be more apt to call the Strand a black hole, a monolith, a red giant. As a center of gravity in literary New York, its pull is inescapable. The beauty of something as big as the Strand, as ubiquitous, is that it acts as a screen upon which any wayward reader can project their life. As much as I complain about its crowds and its erratic selection, the Strand is a part of my life, and that will be the case for as long as I choose to be a part of this city.
As the night wound to a close, I introduced myself to Nancy. Our conversation was interrupted by a British man with spectacles. “I doubt Fred would remember me,” he began. He proceeded to tell her that when he was a student, he’d needed a book for his thesis. The book in question was long out of print, and the school library’s copy had been stolen. He was able to track down a copy at the Strand, but the price tag was hundreds of dollars. He pleaded with Fred to lower the price, and Fred offered to simply lend him the book free of charge. “That sounds like Fred,” Nancy said. She told me that, all night long, people had been regaling her with stories of Fred lending them money or books, particularly during the AIDS crisis.
Fran Lebowitz stopped by to bid Nancy farewell. “You’re keeping the store, right?” Fran said. “If not, I’m taking it back.” The Strand belongs to no one and to everyone. Rest in peace, Fred Bass. Long live the Strand.
Brian Ransom is the social media manager at The Paris Review.
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