The 70,000 books in the Fourth Avenue store swelled, at the Broadway site, to half a million by the mid-1960s and 2.5 million by the 1990s, requiring the purchase of a storage warehouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. By the time Mr. Bass bought the building for $8.2 million in 1997, the Strand had become the largest used-book store in the world.
Into his late 80s, Mr. Bass stood behind a counter, appraising books and authorizing payment on the spot to book-laden sellers cleaning out their apartments, critics offloading surplus review copies and the down-at-heel looking to collect a few dollars.
“We’re the last place left besides a pawnshop where you can walk in the door and sell stuff,” he told the newspaper The Villager in 2010. When he was not behind the counter he sat on a stool at the front of the store, a perch that allowed him, as he put it, “to promote smooth traffic flow.” On weekends he attended estate sales, amassing even more books.
“It’s a disease,” he told New York magazine in 1977. “I get an attack, something like a panic, of book-buying. I simply must keep fresh used books flowing over my shelves. And every day the clerks weed out the unsalable stuff from the shelves and bins and we throw it out. Tons of dead books go out nightly. And I bought ’em. But I just have to make room for fresh stock to keep the shelves lively.”
Fred Bass was born on June 28, 1928, in Manhattan, a year after his father, an immigrant from Lithuania, had opened the Pelican Book Shop on Eighth Street, near Greene Street. Ben Bass had developed book fever browsing the stores on Fourth Avenue during lunch breaks from his job in a nearby fabric store. Fred’s mother, the former Shirley Vogel, was an immigrant from Poland who died of cancer when he was 6.
Ben Bass, who died in 1978, did not thrive in his new occupation. He was forced out of his Eighth Street premises in 1929 and opened the Strand on Fourth Avenue with $300 in savings and another $300 in borrowed money. The cash register was a cigar box. In the early days, to keep expenses down, he slept on a cot in the back of the shop.