At home with millions of books: At the Strand, ask Ben McFall; he knows fiction
Jan 24, 2013
Originally published in the New York Times Jan. 20, 2013, Ben McFall is a 1971 Olivet College alumnus.
By Corey Kilgannon
The oracle of the Strand Book Store can be found back in the fiction section wearing a name tag that reads: “Benjamin. Ask Me.”
NAME: Ben McFall
WHERE HE’S FROM: Detroit
WHAT HE IS: Manager of the Strand Book Store’s fiction section
TELLING DETAIL: He took a job at the store because “it was dusty, dirty, old and interesting.”
In the 35 years that Ben McFall, 64, has managed the vast section, many customers have: for that elusive first edition, for a good poetry recommendation, for relationship advice.
“If you really need to know, you go to the Strand and ask for Ben,” said Llew Almeida, a book collector from Southport, Conn., who was part of a group of customers and staff members buzzing around Mr. McFall on Wednesday afternoon at the mammoth bookstore at Broadway and 12th Street that has a staff of more than 170 workers and an estimated two million books in its inventory.
Mr. McFall is the dean of the clerks and the institutional memory of the fiction section, where he sorts, prices and shelves hundreds of books a day. And he is often the one pulling books off the shelves for customers.
In recent years, the store has put in place a computerized inventory system, but Mr. McFall relies largely on his prodigious mental map of the tens of thousands of books in the section to keep track of the waxing and waning of various titles.
A pristine copy of Gore Vidal’s “Washington, D.C.” had come in; so had a slightly rare copy of James Baldwin’s “Just Above My Head”; George Saunders’s new “Tenth of December” had sold out.
“It seems like a feat, but if it were your house, you’d know where things are, too,” Mr. McFall said while pulling books off shelves, almost without looking at their titles, to fill a large order.
Back at his stall, he resumed his incessant sorting and culling of books that are carted over nonstop from the buying counter in the rear of the store.
There, the buyers – headed by the Strand’s owner, Fred Bass, 84, whose father, Benjamin Bass, opened the store in 1927 – acquire books all day long and pass all the fiction to Mr. McFall’s book-strewn nook a few shelves away.
“I like this spot because I can hear Fred but he can’t hear me,” the soft-spoken and unflappable Mr. McFall said. “That’s how I like it, because I like to say what I think.”
Mr. McFall, who lives with his boyfriend in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, regards Mr. Bass as a father figure and calls the Strand his family.
“I don’t have to have children because these are my children,” he said, gesturing toward the group of younger staff members milling about.
“So many have come through here and then started up bookstores or teach at universities,” he added.
He paused to call a collector about several obscure books that had just come across his desk, and then a mystified young store clerk walked over and said he had a customer needing information on “Sam Jones, an 18th-century writer.”
“Probably Samuel Johnson, Dr. Johnson,” Mr. McFall said.
Another clerk brought over an old edition of “Moby-Dick,” and before she even drew close, Mr. McFall gasped and said, “Oh, is that a Rockwell Kent?” – referring to the illustrator of the edition – “Oh, you just have to own that.”
Mr. McFall grew up in Detroit, the only child of two schoolteachers, and he studied literature and music in college. He worked at a bookstore in Connecticut after graduation and then moved to New York in the mid-1970s to flourish as an actor, singer, poet and openly gay man. He took a job at the Strand in 1978.
“Back then, it was a cruel place; I was the first nice person to work here,” Mr. McFall said.
Mr. Bass immediately assigned him to organize the store’s fiction section. Mr. McFall said he had spurned offers to manage other bookstores, and added, “I’m perfectly willing to sell low-end dresses here if it means keeping the Strand in business.”
The writer Luc Sante once worked alongside him – “He did paperbacks all by himself,” Mr. McFall said – and Susan Sontag was a regular, as was the novelist David Markson, who always wanted his books displayed more prominently.
Mr. McFall has helped Cicely Tyson buy books for Oprah Winfrey, and has helped Lena Horne find a copy of the play “Cattywampus.”
Then there was the time someone intoned in a deep voice, “Who’s Ben?” He looked up and it was Tom Brokaw, who, upon Mr. McFall’s recommendation, picked up a copy of the historical novel “Giants in the Earth.”
On Wednesday, the novelist Greg Dinallo sidled up to Mr. McFall and asked him to set aside any copies of his own novels that he could buy back. After Mr. Dinallo left, Mr. McFall sighed and surveyed his section. “I’m just a shop rat,” he said, “but I’m a good one.”