Blogging from A to Z
Theme: Bringing Me Joy
One 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.
As 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.
One 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.
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.