Photograph by Troy Schipdam.
In nearly eight years of working at the Strand, I’ve become friends with many of the regulars who sell books to the store. Overseen by the Strand’s late owner, Fred Bass, until his death in 2018, our buying desk has always been known as a place to make a quick buck. For some, though, it has become a way to make a living.
Larry Campbell, now seventy-two, has been selling books to the Strand since the early nineties. He was once one of the few people we could count on seeing Monday through Saturday, sometimes multiple times a day. Over the past few years, Larry has come by less frequently, and with far fewer books, but he has always been a welcome character, soft-spoken and kind, at the fast-paced and sometimes tense atmosphere of the buying desk. Here, he discusses his life in New York, and how he got started selling books. This interview—part of an ongoing series of conversations with people who resell books in the city—was conducted across the street from Strand in September 2019.
How did you start selling books?
Back in the early nineties, I had a table in the Village, on Sixth Avenue. I would get books and magazines from apartment buildings—I had good relationships with the supers and property managers. I made a lot of money off that shit. I found out that the foreign fashion magazines—the really big ones—would go for a hundred dollars, sometimes more. I had people coming to me from FIT, NYU, Parsons, Pratt. You know how I got put onto that? I had my table, and I just happened to run into this guy who said to me, “Hey, man, I need all the fashion magazines you can gather up. My daughter goes to art school and she needs all different types. You can make some money, man!”
So I did. He called his daughter, and she came by and brought about a hundred dollars’ worth of magazines. Then what she did was tell her friends, and they all came. I said to myself, Wait, I might have something here. I started walking around grabbing all the fashion magazines I could find: Mademoiselle, Vogue, old Vogues, all the Vogues. That’s when the money started coming in. My table used to be full of women—nothing but women. On the weekend, I would bring scissors with me, and let them cut what they wanted out from the magazines. They still paid me full price. I would tell them they didn’t have to do that and they’d say, “Nah, nah, nah, you’re out here, we want you to make a living.” All right, fine!
Then I ran into an old dude who was like, “Yo, if you find any books, instead of selling them out here you should take them to Strand.” At that time I wasn’t homeless. My mom was alive, my pop was alive, everything was going good.
Where did you live back then?
I lived in the Bronx—143rd Street and 3rd Avenue, in the Patterson Projects. That’s where I grew up. I hung out with all the ball players. A lot of guys in my neighborhood made it and went pro. The most famous one was Nate Archibald.
No shit! Really?
Yeah, Tiny Archibald. We used to play together in neighborhood tournaments. You learn a lot when you’re around guys that go on to play for Michigan, Rutgers, and all that.
I had some problems in school, but my marks were always good. I did good in school. But I wanted to play ball, you know? As the years go on you get better, your game elevates. It’s a matter of practice. I was getting good at that. Then I fucked my knee up when I was at City College and I couldn’t do that anymore. My knee went out, it just blew out.
What did you study at City College?
You know how you take all these liberal arts courses to find out which thing you want to do? I thought I wanted to do computers, but I said, Man, this shit’s boring—I don’t wanna be stuck with this. You’re just sitting in a fucking office all day. It’s not what it’s chalked up to be.
I worked for Chase Bank after I graduated, in the seventies. The last job I had, I was working for a company called Unisys. It taught me how to deal with people, how to talk—speech training and all that. They used to send me out to give speeches, like marketing. Once they learned I could speak well, they really took advantage of that. They used to send me out to sell computers. I did pretty good at that—better than I thought. But, you know how marketing is—it’s not easy. You really gotta sell yourself, to sell someone else’s stuff. I got to meet a lot of important people—you meet beautiful women and all that. But that, also, was boring.
That was in my thirties. I was married then—my girl was from Bayamón, Puerto Rico. That didn’t last long. Well, it lasted long enough. But we left on good terms. I learned a lot, she learned a lot. And that’s that.
Was the Strand the first place you tried selling books to?
Yeah. I met the owner, Fred Bass, the first day I came in here. I found a bunch of art books around New York Hospital on Sixty-Eighth Street. It was a summer day—it was hot. At that time they didn’t have MetroCards, so nobody was swiping you in. I found two crates, stuffed cardboard in them to keep the books safe, and dragged them all the way down here. I was soaking with sweat. By the time I got here, I was drenched.
So I went in, and Fred said, “Oh my God, what happened to you?” I told him what I did, and he said, “Don’t you ever do that again—you’ll give yourself a heart attack. If you ever find books like these again, call me. You take a cab, we’ll pay for it.” That’s how me and Fred started to get tight. He was impressed that I’d got all these books that they wanted—and they wanted them all.
Whenever I came in looking like that, Fred would give me money to buy something to drink, buy something to eat. He’d look at me and ask, “You all right?”
Why did you start selling books full-time?
I got tired of all the people down by the table, when I was selling magazines. They were stealing stuff—my stuff would always go missing. What really did it was this one guy I had to beat up. I didn’t beat him too bad, because I knew the cops would be like, “You’re going to jail, Larry.” I knew what he did was wrong, and I was running up Sixth Avenue after him with a pipe in my hand, but I couldn’t hit him with no damn pipe.
I was tired of that. I said, I’m just gonna start selling all my shit at the Strand. You shoulda seen the money I used to make. I would just keep coming with those art books. I would make out every day with three hundred to four hundred dollars. I forgot about the magazines—even though I made money off that, I liked this better. But the internet messed that up. I still find good books, but it’s nowhere near that kind of money now.
Where do you get your books from?
People throw them out, people die. To be honest with you, the best books I’ve found are from people who died. Older people have the best shit. They have all this stuff and then the family doesn’t want it, so they throw it out. And I learned quick what was worth it. I learned from Neil Winokur, one of the buyers who used to be at the Strand. Nobody liked Neil, but I liked him. I had this book one time, and I thought it was messed up, tattered, like somebody threw paint on it. I was gonna throw it out, but I brought it here, and it was worth it. Neil saw it and told me, “What you have here is worth a lot of money.” I went upstairs to the rare book room, and Richard Devereaux, another buyer, told me what it was worth. They gave me fifteen hundred dollars. They sold the fucking book that same day! They must have sold it for forty-five hundred, maybe more.
And then I did it again! I had some book that looked like an accounting ledger—Richard picked it right out of the pile. There was a lady that came in every day, and he said she was always looking for it. Well, she didn’t have to look no more—Larry’s got it.
I remember once when I was working, another seller—it was Neil Harrison—walked in and asked Fred for seventy-five dollars so he could buy a DVD player. I think this was right when he got his own place. Fred just said, “Whatever,” and gave him the seventy-five bucks.
Well, Fred probably took that money out from what Neil brought in. You gotta pay it back. That’s what you gotta understand—you don’t get this shit for free.
You know something? It all worked out all right. It was good back then, but we knew that it was gonna end. Fred got sick. He couldn’t handle coming in anymore, and he died not long after. And after that it all started to change.
In a way, I’m kind of glad that time ended. I couldn’t borrow money anymore, but that was okay, because I was borrowing too much money and not bringing in books like I used to. I got in over my head, money-wise. One time I owed Fred six hundred dollars. But, by some luck, I found a bunch of good books and paid it all back in one shot, so I never really got in any trouble for that. Now that’s luck. Where did I get all those books from? Once again, dead people. I better thank God for those dead people.
I was having fun then, but now’s what happens when the fun runs out.
It’s not fun anymore?
Not like it used to be. Still better than a lot of shit I could be doing. I’m just lucky that I know what I’m doing. Some people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. I can see it when they come through the buying-desk door.
A lot of us go hunting at the same time. Sometimes I see them uptown—we’re out in the same area hunting. Luckily we all find shit. Think about it—all of us in the same area? How does one make money? Sometimes we’re arguing, “Oh, you’re in my spot.” It is what it is. If you get it, you get it.
Do the supers in the buildings ask for a cut of the money?
Some of them do. They’re not allowed to—you could get fired for that. This one super, he heard about the money you could make, and he would just come to the Strand himself. But, like I said, he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing. He came in hot, and Fred had to tell him, “These aren’t books, these are magazines.” He would argue, and Fred would throw him out.
I remember one guy came in with books that were all messed up. Neil Winokur said, “We’re not taking these.” I could tell they were all fucked up—no way they’d take them. The guy got mad and said, “That’s not fair!” You know what Neil did? He came out from behind the counter, picked them up, and threw them across the street. That shit was so funny, man.
What’s worse, selling in the summer or the winter?
Winter. Winter’s bad. But, to remedy that, you’ve got to have connections. You got to have people looking out, people to hold this, hold that.
What do you do after you haul books around all day?
I take it easy! After that I’m all worn out. That’s a lot of wear and tear on the body going up hills—there’s nothing but hills in Manhattan! You go up one hill, then there’s another one. It’s like a project! I have this heavy-ass shopping cart—I can’t handle it all, man. And these carts, they’re heavy as shit. They start turning on their own. And you got these people that don’t know how to walk—I can run them over! What are they doing? Do you see how heavy this cart is? You’re going to try to run and cut in front of me? Then, if you get hit, you’re gonna blame me. That’s not right. Come on, man.
Do you ever wish you stuck with the Chase people instead of doing this?
No. You know what I wish? I wish I’d stuck with Unisys. I could have retired there. But I was getting high, all kinds of crazy shit. Partying too much. I got carried away. Women and drugs. Hanging out every day. It was crazy—I was off the chain.
But what’s happening to me now, living out here—that happened because my mom ended up dying. It broke me down. I couldn’t handle it. I lost it. You think you could handle a thing like that, but you don’t know shit until you go through it. It’s funny how you’re still able to function, despite all that.
Then I had to watch my pa go—that fucked me up. I watched him die of colon cancer. I don’t ever want to see that happen to someone again. Damn. My brother handled it better than I did. I could stay with him, but I don’t want to. I don’t like putting anybody out on my account. I don’t want to bother them. He’s married now, he’s got daughters. I don’t want to get in the way of that shit.
Troy Schipdam is a writer and a reader for The Paris Review.
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