ACROSS the buying counter at the Strand Book Store, which is as worn and battered as an old school desk, has flowed much of the secondhand-book trade of the city of New York. Dog-eared tomes in college bags; shiny review copies dropped in by critics; bland boxes of publishers’ remainders, and tantalising parcels from private estates; leather-bound volumes with uncut pages, and paperbacks rescued by vagrants from the trash. The whole momentum of New York publishing and reading seems to push towards that counter where Fred Bass presided, building up his stock from 70,000 in 1956 to 2.5m by the 1990s, and so rapidly exceeding his sales space that many books also sit in a warehouse at Sunset Park, in Brooklyn.

To this plenitude of books he was forever adding more. Every day he approached his counter like a small boy on a treasure-hunt. And treasure did turn up: a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (he paid $7,000; resale price, $38,000), and a second folio Shakespeare (sold for $100,000). Yet the vibrant life of the shop pleased him just as much. From his counter he could survey the crazily overstuffed main floor, man the ever-ringing phone, and keep an eye on people browsing the dollar carts outside (“We prosecute everybody”). Gradually the business covered so many creaky wooden floors, branching out even to satellites at Central Park on Fifth Avenue and the Flatiron District and elsewhere, that what he could see was but a tiny portion of the whole. Still, he could direct the flow.

His business was (and is) such a feature at Broadway and 12th, with its 1950s red fascia, its lingering street browsers and its parade of white-on-red signs—“Open Seven Days Until 10.30pm”, “Sell Your Books Here”, “ASK US”—that it seemed to have been there always. But he moved it there from Fourth Avenue, from the dereliction of what had once been the Book District, in 1957, shortly after he took over from his father Benjamin. The secondhand sector was dying, and his father thought he should try another trade. But by then Fred had been thoroughly infected. The book-dust he had been sweeping up since schooldays had got into his blood, and he never got it out. Working with his father, an immigrant from Lithuania who had battled destitution by browsing and acquiring, was sparky. But the pursuit of books united them. He would lug the precious bundles back on the subway, the rope digging into his hands. He supposed later that their bookshop survived, when 50 or so others went under, because his father had taught him what he knew.

At the buying counter his father sometimes yelled. Fred, when he assumed command, was quieter. With his three-piece suits and neat beard, he looked more like an Ivy League professor. The workings of his mind, though, moved lightning-sharp through price-scales, stock numbers and prevailing taste. And his decision was final. A biography of Hubert Humphrey? Nobody wanted to read about has-beens. A canvas bag of hardbacks? At a glance, $15. He mostly went by “feel”, losing his temper only when he was offered books that were dirty, or had no covers. “Are you really trying to sell this?” he would ask. And he tried to be fair, even to the down-and-outs. After all, beside the pawnshop, this was almost the only place in the city where you could just walk in and sell stuff.

Towards staff he was also kind, though not foolishly so. Their $10.50 an hour, at latest rates, was hardly the New York living wage, but with 60 folk a week lining up to work at the Strand he could obviously name his price. In order to see what they knew about books (since “Without good people, you don’t have anything going”), he devised a quiz to match ten authors with ten works, from Homer onwards. Hundreds failed. Equally testing was the lack, until his daughter and co-manager Nancy insisted on it 12 years ago, of central air-conditioning in the store. Having broiled by then in book-stacks through 70 New York summers, Fred saw no problem.

Modernity kept encroaching on his emporium, but he was sanguine about most of it. Amazon did not seem to dent his trade, especially since he had turned the shop into such an icon of New York that 15% of the revenues now come from sales of Strand T-shirts, tote-bags, mugs, socks and scented candles. The store’s status in the city reached a sort of apogee, for him, on the night two officers from the Police Department approached him as he was closing up and asked him, shyly, whether they might buy a T-shirt.

Living and dead

One question often asked was why on earth he needed more books, when those he hadn’t yet sold were heaping up all over. He had asked his father the same thing, but soon understood. You couldn’t sell a book you didn’t have. Besides, the secondhand-book trade was not about old, inert, long-accumulated things. It was alive, and needed renewing all the time. As fast as he was taking in fresh, lively books at his counter, staff would be clearing far shelves of all the dead, which would never sell. And this philosophy seemed to explain a second question that arose: how in one year, 2005, the store’s “8 Miles of Books” suddenly became “18”. Some Jewish patrons of the Strand pointed out that, in Hebrew, 18 is also the numerical value of the word chai—meaning “life”.