The Strand Bookstore turns 80 tomorrow, all eighteen miles of it. It was founded by Ben Bass on what was then Book Row — Fourth Avenue, from Astor Place to Union Square, was home to 48 bookstores. Today the Strand is the only survivor, relocated around the corner, to Broadway and 12th Street, and the store is run by the next two generations of Basses, Fred — who took over management in 1956 — and his daughter, Nancy. After the jump, Bass reminisces about famous customers and famous books, and explains why he likes being surrounded by Barnes & Noble stores.
How has the business changed over the past 80 years? Are people still as literary as they once were?
I think they are more so. We’re a very educated country. When TV came in we thought the book business would die. That wasn’t so; the things that appeared on TV started to stimulate the book business. Look at the Ken Burns series on the Civil War — suddenly there was a boom in the book business every time something appeared on TV. Now we’re being challenged with the computer and Internet. But the computer is an incredible help to us. Twenty or so percent of our sales are online now. So far today we’ve had 905 books ordered online, and it’s noon. People like to handle and see books, no matter how much material you put online. They want the experience of coming into the store. Plus it’s a great place to pick someone up.
Any treasures you’re hoarding?
We have a $40,000 copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses signed by Joyce and Matisse, who did the illustration. It’s in the store, up in the safe.
Any favorite customers over the years?
Andy Warhol used to come in here with his entourage. Abby Hoffman autographed some books for me. I got a copy of the Bill of Rights from him that had been hollowed out. Supposedly he kept a tape recorder in it during the trial. Lee Strasburg very rarely walked out without one or two boxes of books. He was a true intellect, and when he died I think they had a heck of a time getting him out of his apartment because the books were blocking the passageways.
At one point you were literally surrounded by Barnes & Noble, which had stores at Astor Place and Union Square. Now the Astor Place store is closing. Do you consider it a victory?
They’ve always been six blocks away. The original was at Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, and when they opened up in Astor Place, I thought it would affect business. But we’re a different mix, and actually my business went up. When the Union Square store opened, my business jumped also. I told [Barnes & Noble owner Steve] Riggio, “I wish you would open up another one. Every time you open up a store, I do great business.” —Janelle Nanos