The late Fred Bass, longtime owner of the Strand Bookstore who died January 3 at age 89, is getting posthumous bear hugs from the City of New York, which is expected to name a bench after him in Washington Square Park. It has also named January 26 “Fred Bass Day,” said U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who on Friday night presided at a public memorial for Bass at the iconic East Village store.
“Yesterday the family was told by the mayor’s office” about the city’s tributes, noted Wyden, who is married to Bass’s daughter Nancy Bass Wyden, now the sole owner of The Strand. She has been credited with modernizing the store starting in 2001 and now works daily with general manager Eddie Sutton in dealing with the store’s mammoth inventory of used, rare and new volumes.
Wyden did not mention that the Strand last week slapped the city, Verizon and Con Edison with a $160,000 lawsuit for negligence in the wake of a series of morning manhole explosions and fires that blew out front windows and damaged the independent bookseller last March, forcing a day’s shutdown.
But the senator did offer a few personal memories of his father-in-law and how he required that job applicants pass his “famous literary matching quiz.”
“When I heard a rumor from time to time that the job applicants might just possibly peek in the stacks for the answers, I asked Fred about it. He just laughed and said, ‘At least everybody is reading.'” When the crowd’s laughter died down, Wyden added: “And Fred knew that life should not be boiled down to 280-character tweets. And that’s another reason why we celebrate Fred’s life, a life well read.”His remarks drew applause from a mostly standing crowd of about 125 book lovers plus speakers with marquee names. They included Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (filling in for New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who had a family emergency), humorist Fran Lebowitz and celebrated journalist Gay Talese, who arrived with his publisher wife Nan Talese.
Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, also spoke and presented Nancy Bass Wyden with a Fred Bass Day proclamation at the store’s second floor art desk, which had been transformed into a stage.
The dapper Talese, resplendent in a tailored suit with a red-striped shirt and yellow tie with polka dots, said he had visited the Strand for 50 years and “found this store to be an oversupply of almost everything. Indeed I often think that there are too many books in the bookstore. Too many books! It’s almost suffocating to pursue the cluttered rows and stacks of volumes. And to be sure, nothing is more humbling for a writer than to be surrounded by millions of other writers’ books, so evident and available. This is the achievement, of course, of the man we honor tonight, the great Fred Bass.”
Citing a Wall Street Journal article, Talese noted that when Nancy Bass Wyden decided to add air conditioning to the store, her father hated it but went along with it. “I might have gone further and said Fred Bass appreciated the blissful suffocation of his overstocked stalls. He was always breathing books and was ever open to the elements of expanding knowledge.”
Lebowitz told the crowd that the last time she visited the store was in June for its 90th anniversary. “Fred said to me, ‘You know, next year I’m going to be 90 and we’re going to have a party, and it’s going to be bigger than this party, and I would like you to make a toast to me at that party.’ And I said I would, and so, unfortunately, I have to do this now.”
She observed: “I’ve known Fred since I was about 20– although he didn’t know me until I was 27 and had a book out– but I knew him because I used to come in and sell books, review copies and things like that.” She recalled something Bass said during the Strand’s 90th anniversary: “I’ve been working in this store since I was 13 years old. Everything was different then… Even the brooms were different.”
Per Bass’s Times obituary, his father Benjamin Bass founded the Strand in 1927. It was a small used book shop that Benjamin struggled to keep afloat along a stretch of Fourth Avenue called Book Sellers Row. Destitute during the Depression, Benjamin put his son and daughter Dorothy in foster care at one point.
Fred Bass took over the Strand’s management in 1956, transforming the store into a New York institution and major tourist draw. When it was his turn at the mic, Krugman admitted he “did not know Fred,” but he marveled at the venue that Bass had built up. “What you can find in a great bookstore is the thing that you weren’t looking for,” he said, adding that it’s “often the book that changes your life.” He called the Strand “the greatest book store in the world.”
Not surprisingly, the most poignant reminiscences came from people who knew Fred Bass for decades, like Ben McFall, 69, dubbed “The Oracle” of the Strand’s huge fiction section in a 2103 New York Times profile. He’s been at the Strand for nearly 40 years.McFall, a native of Detroit, first applied for a job in August of 1978. He walked into the store, met Bass and was hired on the spot after taking his test. Bass told him he could start work the next day. It was a Thursday, McFall said, and he asked Bass if could start Monday after “one last free weekend.”
Bass, he recalled, said, “Sure,” then added: “Come in on Monday. You should also know that we are a union shop and once you’re here you will have to go down and register at the local, District 65 on Astor Place.”
McFall began work in Fiction, on the main floor. “Everyone I met was unique, astonishing, intimidating, even frightening. Everyone shouted. Commands. Requests. Responses.” He noted that the woman who ran the social science section wore “a satin half-slip, a lace trimmed teddy, fishnet hose, open-toed high heels and a hat with a veil.”
McFall called Bass a “great boss, a working boss and mentor, an invaluable confidante, stubborn yet financially supportive, provider of time and space for artistic expression, fair— did I say ‘stubborn?'”
“Far more than a commercial enterprise, Strand became a safe haven for a kaleidoscopic array of creative spirit. Fred provided me with a wonderful job and a place for me to be me.” He paused. “Thank you, Fred.”
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the spelling of Fran Lebowitz’s name and several imprecise quotes.