Ben McFall: “He incarnated the Strand bookstore’s erudite but easygoing spirit”

From a New York Times obit by Alex Traub headlined “Ben McFall, ‘the Heart of the Strand,’ Is Dead at 73”:

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 at his home in Jersey City, N.J.

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

Mr. 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….

Pricing was one of many fields in which Mr. 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,” Mr. McFall said 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 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 Mr. McFall lay a sign reading “Classics” and a shelf of leather-bound volumes.

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

Mr. 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.”

Ms. Lucas made a habit of heading to the Union Square area of Manhattan to visit the Strand and chat with Mr. 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.”

Mr. McFall could gossip or banter without looking up from the books he was working through. He sometimes surprised people by halting a conversation, departing wordlessly and returning with a book that he would say his interlocutor had to read. He was known to stash books under his desk if he thought they were perfectly suited to any of his regular customers….

“Ben never had an official position,” said Paul Secor, a retired Strand book buyer who was Mr. McFall’s colleague for most of his tenure. “Ben’s title was ‘Ben.’”

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

Benjamin Julius McFall was born on 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 Mr. 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 Ms. Sante, figures like Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, the frontman of the band Television, worked as clerks, earning enough to rent crummy apartments, buy records and go to nightclubs. Mr. McFall contributed to an issue of Stranded, Ms. 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.

Back then, the Strand hardly sold new books. Now, in addition to the latest best-sellers, it gives space to socks, tote bags and mugs. Bibliophilic employees have complained about that evolution while also accusing management of mistreating workers, particularly during the pandemic, which led to mass layoffs and a warning from Ms. Wyden that “our business is unsustainable.”

Mr. McFall gave his blessing to commercialization — “I’m perfectly willing to sell low-end dresses here if it means keeping the Strand in business,” he told The Times — and throughout his tenure he commanded respect both from management and across factions of the rank and file….

A few years ago, Troy Schipdam, a Strand employee in his mid-20s, was startled to see Mr. McFall receive a visit at the store from a man Mr. Schipdam recognized as Matthew Shipp, whom he considers among the world’s greatest living jazz pianists.

Mr. Schipdam asked Mr. McFall how he knew Mr. Shipp. The two were old friends — Mr. Shipp had worked at the Strand decades ago. Mr. McFall brought Mr. Schipdam to one of Mr. Shipp’s shows, gave him the lowdown on arts figures in the audience and took his new protégé backstage to hang out with Mr. Shipp and his sidemen.

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

As he grew sicker, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. McFall, who was so attached to his Strand name tag 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.”


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