Like many teachers of English literature, my father couldn’t pass a used bookstore without going in. He often left with well-worn volumes in hand, often texts by or about his favorite Williams—Shakespeare, Blake, and Yeats. There were 3,000 hardbacks in our living room, but what did that matter? There was always room for a few more.
Dad’s compulsion lies deep in my DNA. But where he could visit an archipelago of Manhattan bookstores—more than a dozen on Fourth Avenue alone, back then—that cluster has shrunk to a few pushcarts and one main island: the Strand Bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street. Fred Bass, the owner of that island, has died at 89. I remember him affectionately for his dream of seeing “18 miles of used books.” He and I had a lucrative business arrangement: At Time, where I was the books editor, tomes of all sorts arrived by the day. By the end of the month, books on every conceivable subject had piled up in a storeroom—on cooking, travel, animals, vegetables, minerals, politics, history, biography, and more besides, in addition to fiction. With space at a premium in Rockefeller Center, I would call the Strand.
Fred was only too happy to send a man with a dolly to load the Strand truck and take away the books that had been reviewed—or that would never be reviewed. He paid about a third of the list price and sold the works for about half that figure, making many people happy—including certain members of the Time staff, who split the proceeds. In a way, Fred got more than he paid for: my colleagues and I often visited the Strand. Invariably, we exited with merchandise in hand.
But that was then; this is 2018. When Fred’s father, Benjamin, founded the Strand in 1920, and for decades afterward, New York City real estate was reasonably priced, and street-level shops offered such exotica as buttons, butterflies, shells and toy soldiers—and, of course, used books. Today, rents have skyrocketed so severely that chain stores and banks mostly occupy those spaces. And then there’s Abe Books, a consortium of online used booksellers, whose wares are available with a few clicks of the computer keyboard, to say nothing of Amazon.
At least for now, the Strand continues. Fred bought the building outright 20 years ago, so his store is safe from predators. Besides, every true used-book hunter needs the aroma and feel of texts whispering on the shelves, waiting for the buyer to hear the full-throated message. And every one of those hunters knows the truth of Virginia Woolf’s observation: “Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes lack.” R.I.P, Fred Bass—but not his dream.