Bette, Books, and Strand Bookstore


Thank you, Cris

Those Books Look Good? Imagine Reading Them
Published: November 4, 2003

It doesn’t take much solo snooping to deduce that Nancy Bass — the
third-generation owner-operator of the Strand Book Stores, New York City’s
overflowing repository of the printed page — keeps her office at the
flagship store conspicuously, even suspiciously, bookless.

With 16 miles of reading material at the corner of 12th Street and Broadway
(it used to be, famously, eight miles, but according to the new awning, Ms.
Bass recently doubled the inventory), why not sample her own wares?

*After all, she’s the woman who masterminded an ingenious, lucrative spinoff

of the family business: she supplies good-looking books to the libraries of
good-looking readers like Tom Cruise, Richard Gere and Bono, and creates
literary backdrops for television and film sets such as Dr. Melfi’s office
in “The Sopranos,” Mikhail Baryshnikov’s artsy loft in “Sex and the City,”
***Bette Midler’s salon in “The Stepford Wives” and Denzel Washington’s den
in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Doesn’t she have her own personal

Not on the job; not when she’s busy designing and collating home libraries
in East Hampton for Steven Spielberg and Ronald O. Perelman, or selecting
the perfect books for the 34-room Manhattan apartment of Stephen A.
Schwarzman, a raging bibliophile and the chief executive of the Blackstone
Group. For a Ralph Lauren Polo shop in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, she supplied
books that contained no religious images or illustrations of birds or women;

for a “Saturday Night Live” skit, she scraped together 50 feet of books
about bears. Her “Books by the Foot” installations usually cost around $100
per foot, $350 if top-grade leather and gilt are specified for yachts or
mansions with antique pretensions. As for rarities: anyone who craves that
second printing of Shakespeare, circa 1632, will have to shell out $125,000.
But Ms. Bass couldn’t be happier that people are springing for books the
same way they spring for designer wallpaper. If they actually read their
décor, all the better. “I think it’s good to have books in the house; it
warms things up, but I find that having books in my office is too
distracting,” is how Ms. Bass, 42, blithely explains away their absence when

she sweeps in a little late and a lot damp, chic trench coat and long blond
hair flapping, and discovers her third-floor sanctum being scrutinized by a
nosy stranger.

A few blocks away on Fifth Avenue, where she lives with a talkative parrot
named Monkey who doubles as an alarm clock, she has one room devoted to
books, mostly biographies and New York City-centric titles. On her
nightstand is “The Swiss Family Robinson,” catch-up reading. Her all-time
favorite books are “The Odyssey” and “Lolita,” which she feels has gotten a
tacky rap from Hollywood, but she doesn’t own copies of either. “I’m not a
hoarder,” she says, hoarsely. Ms. Bass’s voice is musty and dusty. It
sounds, appropriately enough, like old books smell.

But her office is not the lair of a bookworm. It is the streamlined lair of
a confirmed cosmopolite/socialite (she won the award for best Halloween
costume last week at the Central Park Conservancy gala) with an M.B.A. from
the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an aggressive management style honed

by three years at Exxon. There are file cabinets where bookcases could be,
and framed publicity pieces — clipped from magazines like New York, Crain’s
and People — on the walls. Yes, that’s Ms. Bass who had a walk-on role in
“Absolutely Fabulous.”

There’s a model of the 11,000-square-foot addition to the store, a floor
dedicated to art books, that she intends to unveil next spring; a futuristic

elevator will link the bargain hunter’s delights in the basement to rare
books on the third floor. Ms. Bass is all about transition and progress:
rather than losing momentum to the Internet, the Strand credits 20 percent
of its $20 million annual revenue to sales made on the Web.

ANYHOW, that copy of “In Praise of Nepotism” in here sticks out like a sore
thumb. Ms. Bass is, after all, following in the footsteps not only of her
father, Fred, who still does all the book buying for the Strand from his
first-floor perch, but her grandfather, Benjamin, who opened the store in
1927. It is named for London’s publishing district, which he frequented. But

classic nepotism isn’t the reason she has the book; turns out the author is
a former Strand employee, Adam Bellow, son of the novelist Saul Bellow. She
hasn’t even read it yet.

“The only problem with owning a bookstore is that everybody expects you to
have read everything,” Ms. Bass says. “My mission is to keep this place
going; I’m very lucky that it’s a beloved place. Our history is genuine.
We’re independent. We don’t worry about the competition, but we do keep
tweaking the store.”

She has begun holding Plimptonesque soirées, and fantasizes about a coffee
bar on the second floor (don’t tell Dad; he’s anti-cappuccino). Besides
expanding the store, she’s training for a triathlon; on a whim, she biked 92

miles in a race in July and has since embarked on a fitness blitz. Ms. Bass
grew up in Pelham Manor, but her notion of a perfect weekend was
coming into the city with Grandpa: books, opera, theater, French
restaurants. It didn’t feel like a culture indoctrination; it felt like fun.

When she got into stamp collecting, he told her there was no money it. By
age 16, she worked weekends at the bookstore; the family always assumed she
would join the business, and she is still glad she did. Exxon was a little
too slow with the promotions.

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