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Monday, January 17, 2022

Ben McFall, ‘the Heart of the Strand,’ is dead at 73

Jim Behrle, his partner, said the cause was a fall. He added that McFall had pulmonary fibrosis, which had recently rendered him nearly bedridden

By: New York Times | New York |
January 1, 2022 5:14:34 pm
Ben McFallBen McFall at the Strand bookstore in New York. (Source: New York Times)

Written by Alex Traub

Ben McFall, the longest-tenured bookseller in the history of the Strand, New York’s renowned bookstore, who for decades peered above his spectacles at a line of acolytes, tourists and young colleagues for whom he incarnated the store’s erudite but easygoing spirit, died Dec. 22 at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 73.

Jim Behrle, his partner, said the cause was a fall. He added that McFall had pulmonary fibrosis, which had recently rendered him nearly bedridden.

McFall enjoyed duties and perks not given to any other Strand employee. For much of his tenure, he was the only person in charge of an entire section. Not only that, the fief he governed — the fiction shelves — provides the Strand with the core of its business in used books.

He determined the price of each used hardcover novel and book of stories and then affixed a Strand sticker to the dust jacket. On occasion, he’d assess a book newly purchased by the store and find inside his own handwriting with a price from the 1980s.

Pricing was one of many fields in which McFall’s experience enabled him to make quick, intuitive pronouncements. Without checking a computer, he would say he knew how many years it had been since he had last seen an obscure old novel, the number of days it had remained in stock and its current value online.

His style of authority was offhand. He was rarely seen reading for pleasure, although he appeared to have studied most novels anyone had heard of. Surveying his mental map of the fiction shelves, he could name the books there, and cite the number of copies of them, at any given moment.

“It seems like a feat, but if it were your house, you’d know where things are, too,” McFall told The New York Times for a 2013 profile.

Yet he did not trade this adroitness for a position in management. Instead, he remained among shoppers and Strand underlings on the ground floor, where he became the only employee to have a desk designated specifically for his use. It was at the back of the main aisle, the sort of placement a restaurateur might choose for the corner table he would occupy in his own establishment. Behind McFall lay a sign reading “Classics” and a shelf of leather-bound volumes.

In phone interviews, three people — Lisa Lucas, publisher of Pantheon Books; writer Lucy Sante, a onetime Strand colleague of McFall’s; and Nancy Bass Wyden, the Strand’s owner — all referred unprompted to the reliability with which, when visiting McFall, they’d encounter a line of other people hoping to speak to him.

Behrle, who also once worked at the Strand, said he would approach the line and ask if anyone needed help.

“People would decline,” he said. “They waited for Ben.”

Lucas made a habit of heading to the Union Square area of Manhattan to visit the Strand and chat with McFall every Saturday she was in town.

“He’d always be sifting through a pile of used books,” she said. “A Barthelme book, a DeLillo book, Colson Whitehead, Murakami — we’d have conversations about whatever he had in his hands.”

The prospect of the Strand without McFall is “ungrounding,” Wyden said. “He’s the heart of the Strand”

Benjamin Julius McFall was born June 7, 1948, in Detroit, and grew up there. His parents, Lester and Joetta (Reddick) McFall, were schoolteachers.

He graduated from Olivet College in Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in French and music in 1971. He moved with college friends to Connecticut and worked at the Remarkable Book Shop in Westport. A co-worker told McFall she could see him at the Strand. He had never heard of the place, but in 1978 he arrived in New York and interviewed for a job. Fred Bass, the store’s owner at the time, hired him on the spot.

In that era, the Strand grubstaked downtown bohemia. In addition to Sante, figures like Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, frontman of the band Television, worked as clerks, earning enough to rent crummy apartments, buy records and go to nightclubs. McFall contributed to an issue of Stranded, Sante’s zine, that also included a collage by Jean-Michel Basquiat and work by writers who would go on to prominence, like Kathy Acker and Darryl Pinckney.

When McFall was interviewed for his Times profile, he gestured toward a group of young Strand staffers and said, “I don’t have to have children because these are my children.”

Aside from Behrle, McFall leaves no immediate survivors. A man Behrle described as the love of McFall’s life, Tim Pollock, died of AIDS in 1985. His ashes, which McFall kept, will be buried alongside McFall’s ashes in Detroit.

As he grew sicker, McFall insisted on continuing to work. He spent about half his paycheck on Ubers that would pick him up at his door in Jersey City and drop him off as close as possible to the Strand’s entrance. Because of his illness, he had to stop to catch his breath every 15 feet.

For the sake of his safety during the pandemic, McFall was moved to corporate offices away from the public and his usual spot on the ground floor. There was no more line of fans. Yet McFall, who was so attached to his Strand nametag that he sometimes wore it around his apartment, chose to keep it on even though he no longer spoke to customers.

It read: “Benjamin. Ask me.”

(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)

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