Tuesday, November 04, 2003

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

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 library?

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.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Public Lives: Those Books Look Good? Imagine Reading Them

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