Multi-Generational Retail: The Bass FamilyJun 13, 2019
By Nancy Bass Wyden
For three generations and 92 years: my grandfather, Ben Bass, my father, Fred Bass, and I have run the Strand Book Store in New York City.
Family businesses are the oldest and most common model of economic organization. The vast majority of businesses throughout the world—whether it is farms, corner shops or multinational publicly listed organizations—can be considered family businesses. Here are some of our family business traits:
Curiously quirky. We are unique and not afraid to try the unconventional because we can. There is no bureaucracy to go through—I only had to convince one person—my dad. We roll up our sleeves and think how to do things differently. For instance, we saw the demand in home building and created an entire department devoted to curating instant libraries and selling books-by-the foot for homes, movie, sets, stores, hotels by type of book, binding, color-anything.
Profound connections. The deep, heart-felt connection between the three generations of ownership through the last near century and our customers is what makes us a strong business. Customers remember my dad and grandpa from their main floor book buying desks. While each generation has grown and evolved through the decades in their own way, we have still been able to come together to run a successful business together. Each generation has left a mark that is unique to their ownership, a legacy to be both built upon and upheld.
Community-focused. We feel as the world gets more connected to devices, they crave human connections. We give school tours and have over 400 events every year, for everyone, from Gloria Steinem to Buzz Aldrin to Hilary Rodham Clinton to the Beastie Boys for stimulating discussions and book signings. We even experiment with out of the box events literally-like cards of humanity games and literary speed dating.
Sincere loyalty. My dad invested in his employees, not just with paychecks, but with compassion. He’s loaned employees money for everything from education to a down payment on a house; in the 1980s and 1990s he supported employees who had been diagnosed with AIDS in every way possible. When the bonds of unity, trust, respect and teamwork are prioritized, employees are motivated to perform at higher levels and stay longer, and that radiates to our customers.
Adaptable, but true to our values. My grandfather started off just selling used books at one store in the area known as Book Row. Shoppers would go from one bookstore to the next looking for book treasures. There was organized chaos as our shopping experience. The internet changed all of this. Suddenly, we had to computerize everything and there was an expectation that we had to place the book in the customers hands. We changed and adapted with the times—putting ourselves on the internet. But we also made a conscious decision not to expand into e-books. Since then, we have expanded our line into new, rare and bookish merchandise, adding subscription boxes, “remodeling” our store, so that our customers know that when they come to us, we’ve got just what they need.
Resilient, dedicated and passionate. Only one third of family businesses make it to the second generation; that number precipitously drops to 12% by the third generation. It may be easy to start a family or a family business but keeping either together over time is a lot of work. My grandfather and dad worked six days a week for most of their lives. I have grown up working at the Strand. It is a labor of love. We are carrying on the torch of being one of the last remnants of what was once the literary epicenter of New York City.
If a family-owned business can sustain itself across multiple generations, the consistency and stability this framework provides is central to the company’s success. With the strengths of many generations funneled into a common goal of succeeding as both a family and a company, this structure of running a business can have impressive longevity. In our case, that means surviving 92 years through the Great Depression, the emergence of paperback books, growth in TV and movies, the insurgence of big box stores, e-books and Amazon—all while so-called “experts” told us we were doomed several times, and yet, we survived and we thrived…now with 18 miles of books as our tagline (though it was more like 23 last I checked). Older generations possess the skill and insight that comes from their lived experience, while younger generations are often familiar with current trends in the marketplace; when joined together, they both become assets with a collective strength that enables the family business to reach a wider audience.
The family-owned label, like the Strand, can differentiate a business from the faceless corporations and the homogeneity that dominate commerce worldwide nowadays with personality, connection and authenticity.
Nancy Bass Wyden is the third generational owner of the Strand Bookstore in New York City; she is currently working on a family memoir.