Ben McFall, the longest-tenured bookseller in the Strand’s history, passed away on December 22 at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey.
For decades, McFall stared over his glasses at a line of acolytes, tourists, and new colleagues for whom he embodied the store’s scholarly but easygoing character. He was 73.
Ben McFall, ‘the Heart of the Strand,’ Is Dead at 73
His business colleague, Jim Behrle, attributes it to a fall. He elaborated that McFall was almost immobile due to his pulmonary fibrosis.
McFall had special responsibilities and privileges that no one else at Strand had. In fact, he spent most of his time there as the sole supervisor of a certain department. In addition, the Strand’s used book industry relies heavily on his domain, the fiction shelves.
He tagged the dust jackets of pre-owned novels and collections of short stories with corresponding Strand price stickers. Once in a while, he’d evaluate a book that had just been brought into the shop and discover a price written in his own hand from the 1980s.
McFall’s extensive background allowed him to make instantaneous, intuitive judgments across many different domains, pricing included. He claimed to know the age of an obscure old novel, the number of days it had been in stock, and its current internet value without ever consulting a computer.
His approach to power was more casual.
He looked to have read and analysed just about every novel that has ever been published, yet he rarely read for pleasure. At any given time, he could look at the fiction shelves in his head and name the volumes and the number of copies of each that were there.
If it were your house, you’d know where things are, too, McFall told The New York Times during a profile in 2013.
Despite this dexterity, he did not go for a managerial role.
Instead, he stayed on the ground floor with the customers and the Strand employees, where he was given a special workstation. It was tucked away at the end of the main thoroughfare, like the table a restaurant owner might pick for himself. There was a shelf of leather-bound books and a sign that read “Classics” behind McFall.
In separate phone interviews, Pantheon Books publisher Lisa Lucas, author Lucy Sante (who worked with McFall at the Strand), and Strand owner Nancy Bass Wyden all mentioned, without prompting, that there was always a line of people waiting to meet with McFall.
Behrle, who also used to work at the Strand, claimed that he would go up to the line and inquire as to whether or not anyone required assistance.
He said, “Most people will say no.” For Ben, they waited.
Every Saturday while Lucas was in town, she would make her way to Union Square in Manhattan to spend some time at the Strand and catch up with McFall.
“He was usually digging through a stack of used books,” she said. We’d talk about whoever he was reading at the time, be it Barthelme, DeLillo, Colson Whitehead, or Murakami.
McFall was so immersed in his reading that he never looked up to engage in idle chatter or chitchat. From time to time, he would abruptly end a conversation, leave without saying a word, and come back with a book, claiming that his interlocutor had to read it. When he found a book that he believed would be excellent for one of his regulars, he would sometimes hide it under his desk.
“Ben never had an official job,” Paul Secor, a former book buyer at the Strand and McFall’s colleague for the whole of his career, once said. Just “Ben” was Ben’s name and title.
Wyden called it “ungrounding” to think about the Strand without McFall. We can’t imagine the Strand without him.
Born on June 7, 1948, Benjamin Julius McFall spent his formative years in the Motor City. Both of his parents, Lester and Joetta (Reddick), taught at various points in his life.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in French and music from Olivet College in Michigan in 1971. In Connecticut, he settled in at the Remarkable Book Shop in Westport, where he had previously worked with his college pals.
McFall was informed by a coworker that she would find her boss in the Strand. In 1978, he landed in New York City for an interview despite having never heard of the city before. The shop’s owner, Fred Bass, made him an offer right there.
It was during this time when downtown bohemia was firmly established at the Strand. Artists such as Sante, Patti Smith, and Television vocalist Tom Verlaine all had day jobs that allowed them to pay for substandard housing, record albums, and club cover charges.
McFall’s work appeared in an edition of Sante’s zine, Stranded, with that of future famous authors including Kathy Acker and Darryl Pinckney, as well as a collage by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Few new books were sold in the Strand back then.
Socks, tote bags, and mugs have joined the current hits on the shelves. Employees with a penchant for the written word have voiced concerns about this change while also accusing management of mistreating staff, especially during the epidemic, which resulted in widespread layoffs and a warning from Wyden that “our business is unsustainable.”
McFall approved such commercialization, saying to the Times, “I’m absolutely ready to sell low-end dresses here if it means keeping the Strand in business.” McFall also enjoyed widespread respect from both upper management and the staff as a whole.
He developed strong relationships with the revolving door of young intellectuals who find their footing at the Strand. Once, a more junior coworker questioned him, “Ben, where have you been all my life?” He replied, “I’ve been right here.”
An employee of Strand in his mid-20s named Troy Schipdam was taken aback a few years ago when he saw McFall get a visit from a man he immediately recognised as Matthew Shipp, one of the best surviving jazz pianists.
Schipdam probed McFall about his familiarity with Shipp.
Of course, they were familiar with one another; Shipp had formerly worked at the Strand. At one of Shipp’s gigs, McFall took Schipdam and filled him in on the notable artists in the crowd, before taking his new protege backstage to meet Shipp’s bandmates.
After being asked if he wanted children by the Times reporter, McFall pointed to a group of young Strand employees and replied, “I don’t have to have children because these are my children.”
With the exception of Behrle, McFall has no direct descendants. According to Behrle, McFall’s one true love was the late Tim Pollock, who passed away in 1985 from AIDS. McFall has retained some of his ashes and plans to inter them with his own in Detroit.
McFall insisted on working through his illness.
About half of his salary went to Uber rides that picked him up at his Jersey City apartment and dropped him off as near to the Strand’s entrance as feasible. For every 15 feet he went, he had to rest so he could collect his breath, as his condition prevented him from walking faster.
McFall was relocated from the ground floor to the corporate offices for his own protection during the pandemic. The queue of cheering spectators had ended. McFall, though, was so committed to his nametag at the Strand that he occasionally wore it about his apartment, even after he stopped interacting with clients.