"I can't remember the last time we painted," confesses Nancy Bass, who with her father, Fred, runs the Strand Book Store. Bass is well aware that tampering with a landmark is hazardous business. Nevertheless, come January, the Basses' well-loved, well-worn enterprise at Broadway and 12th is getting a substantial makeover.
Most obviously, the store will roughly double in size, expanding to the second floor, adding an elevator and -- shades of Barnes & Noble! -- a café. "We're looking to partner with someone on that," says Bass. "Some of our concepts have been to do a juice bar with coffee -- a more vegetarian, Villagey theme. Or maybe Old New York."
The logjam of an entrance (which Bass admits "doesn't work at all") will be renovated into submission, as will the truly horrifying bathroom. The slogan, EIGHT MILES OF BOOKS, will become SIXTEEN MILES. ("We already passed sixteen," says Bass, "but it gets to the point where nobody believes us.") The third-floor rare-book room has already been remade into a rather sleek space, rentable for parties. (Imagine getting married at the Strand.)
During these rough times for indie bookstores, the 75-year-old Strand has become an unlikely mini-empire. Apart from a "small" mortgage on the building -- which the Basses bought five years ago -- "we've never handled anything we couldn't finance on our own," says Bass. The Website does 15 percent of the Strand's business, and Hacker Art Books on 57th Street recently became Strand Hacker.
Businesses known for bargains over polish can lose their niches when they clean up. For every B&N that's successfully shaken its dumpy image, there's a Moe Ginsburg, which went bankrupt trying. Might the Strand fall into that trap? "I've thought of that," says Bass. "I always want to maintain the feeling of an old bookstore. No matter how much space we have, books will always end up on the floor."
Besides, her dad might come after her. At 74, Fred Bass (whose father founded the place) still works the counter most days, haggling over the piles of used books people bring in. "It's his favorite thing to do in the world," says Nancy. Will he retire? "He says that he's waiting for me to fire him."