The first time I saw Fred Bass was the first time I stepped into the Strand. It was late winter 1980, and the Strand was the place to go if you had books to sell and needed quick cash. And I needed $375. I had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica and had my eye on an engagement ring. I loved those books and miss them to this day, but I also loved this terrific woman.
I introduced myself to Fred and laid out the volumes. He went through my collection with the eye of a pro. I was in the company of a man with a deep and abiding love of books.
“You’ve kept them in good shape,” he said. “I’ll give you $325 for the set.”
I explained my situation. “So, you see, Mr. Bass,” I concluded, feeling as if I had argued my case well, “to get that ring I need $375. You leave me $50 short.”
Fred smiled. It was, I would come to learn, a contagious smile. The smile spoke volumes—a love of a good time, a good meal, a good drink, travel to places he had never been and others he had visited on a number of occasions. He loved his wife, his daughter, his friends, and this store he built into a landmark.
“Do you love this young lady?” he asked, gazing over the rim of his glasses.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Then you’ll figure a way to come up with $50.”
Ten years later, on the strength of a book sale and a paycheck from a CBS TV series, my wife Susan and I bought a house in Pelham Manor, N.Y. Two weeks after our move, Susan said: “I got a call from Pat, Fred Bass’s wife. Seems we’re neighbors. She invited us to dinner so I said okay.”
In the decade since I had sold Fred my Britannicas, I visited his store on a regular basis, and he and I chatted—mostly about books. There may be 18 miles of books in the Strand, but Fred could tell you where any volume was without moving from his chair. He helped me collect rare editions of The Count of Monte Cristo, my favorite novel. But beyond that, we had never socialized.
“How do they know where we live?”
“Pat works for the real estate group that sold us the house,” Susan said.
And so the friendship grew. Pat and my wife became close; Fred and I even closer.
After a move into a bigger Pelham Manor house, I started a monthly poker game. Fred was my first ask and became the favorite of the group. He loved his nickname, “Fast Freddie,” and was, hands down, the best poker player of any of us. It was an impressive group—two doctors, a CEO, a film producer, a police captain, me, and Fred. Fred had learned how to play cards in the army, and he was too smart for this or any other room.
Even after we moved back to the city, the friendship didn’t waver. The poker games dwindled but were made up with dinners and brunches at the Friars Club (Fred and I were members) and the University Club (Pat is a member).
And then, in 2012, Susan was diagnosed with stage-IV lung cancer. She and Pat met regularly for lunch. Fred always made a point of calling me. But it was a harsh lesson watching my wife deteriorate. I have difficulty dealing with illness. I would much rather remember loved ones as they were (and be remembered the same way).
Susan died on Christmas Eve 2013, and the next several months remain a blur. I didn’t see much of anyone. So, toward the end, I didn’t see Fred as much as I should have. I called once, and we talked about having dinner. But we knew that was one meal we would not share.
I miss Fred very much. I cared for him and know he cared for me. I knew as long as Fred could get around, there would always be another restaurant, another concert or play, another book he was eager to buy for his beloved store.
He was a man to be admired. He took a small used bookstore and turned it into legend. He owned a store with countless books and probably had just as many friends on both sides of the ocean. He loved the city he grew up in and the world he traveled. And he loved the thrill of holding a good book.
I will always cherish the man who bought my Britannicas and allowed me to take that next life step. I will always remember my friend Fred and be comforted by the memories he generously left me. It was an honor to have him in my life. He left like the great man he was—with a full house, aces high.
Lorenzo Carcaterra’s next novel, Tin Badges, will be published by Ballentine in 2019.