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The Strand has a quiz to measure potential employees' book smarts


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A cute, very “New York” read amid the world’s more harrowing news: The Strand has been giving its job applicants a test to measure their literary knowledge since at least 1978. The test has become something of an institution, and while Strand’s owners, Fred Bass and his daughter Nancy Bass Wyden, don’t write the test anymore, the responsibility has since been passed down to a trusted employee. Read Annie Correal on the test in partial below, or in full via New York Times here.

[Strand owner] Mr. Bass has forgotten precisely when he invented the quiz, but the second-longest-tenured employee, Ben McFall, 68, recalls taking it in 1978. Mr. McFall, known as the Oracle for his ability to divine the right book for customers, later helped write the quiz.

In recent years, much has changed at the Strand. The motto went from “8 miles of books” to “18 miles of books” after an expansion and remodeling in 2005. The store added miles of merchandise, too, from a Strand-branded hat line to Moleskine notebooks and Pocky snack sticks. Perhaps most significantly, for broiling employees, the place finally got central air-conditioning, also in 2005. (“I hated it,” said Mr. Bass.)

Over the years, the quiz has been one of the constants.

Laura Donovan, who is now a bookkeeper, worked as a cashier at the Strand in the early ’90s and remembered the quiz, though she had all but forgotten the titles. “Some were softball,” said Ms. Donovan. “Who wrote ‘Moby-Dick’ and so forth, and a few obscure ones.”

What she had recalled more vividly was “opening the store in the morning and we’d have all these people out there waiting for the $1 books”; encountering a film crew shooting a scene for the 1993 film “Six Degrees of Separation” in the store; and making lifelong friends. “We were all close,” Ms. Donovan said.

Brendan Francis Newnam, co-host of the public radio show “The Dinner Party Download,” took the quiz during a summer break from college in the mid-90s. “I remember it being not incredibly hard,” he said.

He was hired. “My purview was the horoscope section,” he said. “Even though it was this low-level job, it had street cred. And it was, you know, magical. It was this cornucopia.”

The book buyers in the rear of the store also left an impression. They were “in a class above the plebeian booksellers,” Mr. Newnam said, adding, “They were rough, unsmiling and they took a perverse pleasure in rejecting people’s books.”

Among young summer employees, he recalled, “there was this camaraderie that we’re going to weather this very tough, very hot experience.” Working without air-conditioning? “That was the real test.”

For about three decades, Mr. Bass presided over the quiz, tweaking it now and then but not making significant changes. In 2005, a manager named Carson Moss took over hiring duties from Mr. Bass and his daughter. “I tried to modernize it and diversify it,” said Mr. Moss, who had studied English literature at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Fred Bass, 88, who owns the Strand along with his daughter, created the literary quiz in the 1970s. He had selected masterworks to appear on the quiz, “And then I did a sneaky thing. I made one not match. ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and no Mitchell,” he said. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times
He kept the format — 10 book titles, 10 authors, one trick question — but “The Stones of Venice” was removed, replaced by the likes of “White Teeth.” “Being and Nothingness” vanished; “The Tipping Point” appeared. “You have to have titles that are well read,” Mr. Moss said.

Mr. Moss updated the quiz about every three years. It became less male-dominated, less white, yet people would still write in the margins. “They would critique the quiz and say there are not enough women or writers of color,” Mr. Moss said. (The Strand has made an effort to diversify its hires in recent years, after the same criticism was made of its staff.)

Recently, another manager, Constance Fox, took over hiring, and the quiz. Ms. Fox, who majored in English literature at San Francisco State University, has worked at the Strand for five years; she previously worked in customer service at the San Francisco Zoo.

Ms. Fox said it was “an interesting challenge” to represent the scope of authors, let alone all human knowledge, noting that the quiz focused on literature and “doesn’t cover all of the second floor” of the Strand — art, architecture, erotica and children’s books (which, it should be noted, are on opposite ends of the floor).

Despite its narrowness, she had not considered eliminating the quiz because “It’s a classic thing on the application.”

If the Strand’s literary quiz has been bound into its culture, so has finding ways to cheat on it.

Mr. Bass, the owner, told of a young man decades ago who had filled out the application. “And then he was running around the whole store,” Mr. Bass said. “He didn’t know any of those books. But he was bright enough to run around and ask the clerks and find the answers.”

He was hired.

In the late ’80s, Daniel Krieger, now a freelance journalist (he occasionally contributes to The New York Times, among other publications), had just graduated from high school when he walked by the Strand, saw a sign that it was hiring and picked up an application.

He matched “A Modest Proposal” with Jonathan Swift, but was stumped by much of the quiz. “I was on my way to see a therapist and together we did it. He said, ‘Look, I don’t think you’re qualified for this job,’ but he gave me the answers to the ones I needed.”

Mr. Krieger soon found himself unpacking shipments in the storage area.

Once cellphones came along, applicants could text well-read friends. Katheryn McGaffigan, now working at a pharmaceuticals company, took the test while at a career crossroads a decade ago. “I studied English at Harvard Extension,” she said. “But I had to text a friend who was a philosophy major. I don’t retain book titles. He gave me four answers.”

*Image of the Strand via racked.com