Josna Rege

356. Bookshops

In Books, reading, Stories on April 2, 2016 at 12:04 pm

BBlogging from A to Z
Bringing Me Joy

FullSizeRenderOne of the doors to the beloved Black Sheep Deli in Amherst has a puzzling sign on it: BOOKSHOP. Only those who have lived in town more than twenty years know why. In those days the Black Sheep Deli was half the size it is now, and the long, narrow back room which now houses the stage was the home of Albion Books. I remember entering its mystic portal when I had just started my graduate studies, poring over the ponderous Theory titles and then diving into the novels in sweet relief. When Albion closed it felt like the end of an era. Atticus Books from New Haven set up shop in a large storefront just opposite and bought up Albion’s stock; softening the blow for us by calling itself Atticus Albion—at first, anyway. Soon it was just Atticus Books; now it is the fine, independent Amherst Books.

UnknownAs recently as seven years ago, there were seven bookshops (and six libraries to boot) in our little town, catering to our many students, professors, and avid readers, book lovers all. Now Amherst Books is the only one remaining. The Jeffery Amherst Bookshop, with its well-stocked college annex and its magical children’s section, closed its doors in 2009 after 31 years. Food for Thought Books, a worker-owned collective, lasted long enough to celebrate its 37th anniversary, but in 2014, despite the best efforts of the community, it too gave up the ghost.

Valley Books Amherst, MAOne of my favorites was Valley Books, a second-hand bookshop. Paying them a visit on my days off was a treasure hunt every time, as I ducked in and navigated down the book-lined alleys with shelves stacked up to the ceiling on either hand, always some impossible delight waiting to be discovered around the next corner. Eventually, in 2009, Valley Books closed too, after 34 years, because like all the others it couldn’t compete with the online book market. At least for its proprietor there was a reasonably happy ending, since he simply continued his business online. I bought two of the bookcases and, in memory of Valley Books, keep the signs on the shelves for the categories that used to be assembled there.


In neighboring Hadley, in a big old barn down an ill-marked driveway, one can find Grey Matter and Troubadour Books, two outfits sharing the space and together offering about a million second-hand books—a million—with a rich, dynamic, inventory that is a treasure trove for collectors. These two are bucking the trend of physical bookshops giving way to online behemoths by having started out as online businesses, but deciding to touch down with a physical presence as well.


All these shops: Amherst, Grey Matter, Troubadour, and the legendary Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, our neighbor to the south, host readings and book launches, and do what they can to support local writers. Stepping in, one enters a hallowed space. The proprietors wisely leave one alone to disappear down one of the aisles, not to re-emerge, blinking and tousled, for a long, long time. There may be a nod of the head between proprietor and customer, the acknowledgement of a kindred spirit, perhaps a limited, book-related exchange of words; but mostly, there is the recognition that this book-hunting is a solitary pleasure and the seeker must be given space and time to indulge in it in his or her own, idiosyncratic way.


Amherst Books

I almost forgot: the Bookshed at the Amherst town dump—uh, transfer station. When students graduate and leave town, professors retire, and Amherst readers do their Spring cleaning, they bring boxes upon boxes to the Book Shed, where they are shelved and sorted by category. There is even a table outside where the townspeople eagerly snatch up the new arrivals. Saturdays are its busiest day, and, when I have time, I join my father-in-law on his weekly outing there. I try to keep to my vow to take home no more than I bring in with me, and sometimes succeed. It’s almost miraculous the number of times I seem to have found exactly what I needed there.


Bookshops, you will have gathered, bring me joy. It goes without saying that books do as well; that would be like saying that life itself brings me joy.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Following you! Can’t wait for “C”.Love,Hayat

    Date: Sat, 2 Apr 2016 16:05:03 +0000 To:

  2. Ah! just the smell of old books in second-hand bookshops is enough to send me into a rapturous reverie.
    LOve this: “book-hunting is a solitary pleasure and the seeker must be given space, and time, to indulge in it in his or her own, idiosyncratic way.”
    Thank you for this treat of a read.

    • Thanks for finding that sentence, Arti. The piece didn’t feel at all artful or well-crafted–just a catalogue. I feel so passionately about bookshops but didn’t come close to conveying that. As soon as I step into one, I get so excited that I have to go to the toilet! But good Indian girls don’t talk about bodily functions in public. (Oops, I just did!)

  3. Bookshops that come and go, a story compounded of despair and hope. Glad there are enough people who appreciate the physicality of books, who want to see them, feel them, touch them, even smell them enough to want to go to a real-life bookshop and individually pick out the delights that they come across. A lovely paean from a true bibliophile.

    • Thank you! Itr takes one to know one. You are absolutely right about “the physicality of books.” I didn’t even talk about the tactile and sensory pleasures, but they are such an important part of the whole experience. The writer Sherman Alexie speaks of the book as a sacred artefact, and refuses to allow any of his books to be released on Kindle and the like.
      Sorry for the ridiculsusly long delay in replying.

      • No worries about the delay, Josna, the real world takes precedence over the virtual world even if our instinct is to give the world of the imagination a primacy over the mundane. I myself have had to neglect blogging of late because of everday demands — hopefully only a temporary state of affairs!

  4. Thanks for sharing about the bookshops in Amherst. I love finding a good bookstore. Many have come and gone in Chicago, too. Booksellers Alley in Evanston was my favorite!

    • Thank you for commenting. Yes, discovering a good bookstore is such fun; and then finding something you never expected to find in a million years. Somehow I stayed close to home in this piece, but there are so many memorable bookstores elsewhere. I will look for Booksellers’ Alley if I come to Evanston.

  5. I used to love bookstores and spend way to much money on books. Once my father refused to give me money to buy school clothes because he said I would only buy books! Sadly I haven’t found a bookstore recently where I felt that wonderful connection. Finding Eliza

    • Ha! A girl scolded for buying books rather than clothes! I too have a hard time spending money on clothes, but books are another matter. In recent years, though, I have been spending much less on them, and apart from new titles I buy in my field, I tend to restrict myself to used bookshops, library discards, and the Bookshed. But I agree that having a special relationship with a particular bookstore is unparalleled. In my twenties I used to go regularly to one which carried international magazines and a good selection of international fiction. It was so exciting when the latest issue of Race Today arrived from England or the next book in Doris Lessing’s space fiction series.

      • Ah, women after my own heart. I hate clothes shopping, but bookstores have a magnetic effect on me. They’ll draw me in every time. I’ve been getting better, though. I’m planning a 10 year bike tour, so I try to limit myself to ebooks these days.

  6. Love this piece! I’m a big book shop fan too! Look forward to reading more of your blogs.

    • Thank you for your visit, Fellow Bookshop Lover, and for your kind comments. I’m going to visit your blog now. Best wishes, J

  7. My husband & I love going to book shops, both new and second-hand!

    • Thank you for visiting and taking the time to comment in the midst of your family visits. It’s always good to see your name. Here’s to bookshops!

  8. Bookstores are the best places. The smell, the possibility of what might be discovered…

    • Yes, the smell and the thrill of potential discovery. Every book has a history, a genealogy. and the smell of books, like the smells that unlock old memories, evokes both personal and collective histories going all the way back to childhood and being read to in bed, or even further back, to the beginning of the printed word. Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment, and all the best with the Challenge.

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