I’ve worked at The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts since at least last Wednesday.
If you get that joke, then you’ve probably been to The Bookstore where you’ve probably met owner Matthew Tannenbaum. Matt’s been in the book business for a little while now. He recounts the beginning of his career as a bookman in the chapbook-sized My Years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Steloff, Proprietor (on sale during business hours; come on in). He’s working on a longer memoir, so I won’t, nor for reasons of plausible deniability do I particularly want to, divulge the details—which are wild, heartbreaking, historic—suffice it to say that The Bookstore came into his care during the nation’s bicentennial year and, despite claims to the contrary, he’s been serving the people of Lenox and the greater community ever since.
The Bookstore is a New England City Lights: a thriving counterculture symbol not simply because of Matt’s connection to banned-book champion Steloff nor solely because of his own place in that continuum (e.g. the poster trumpeting Matt’s reading of Kerouac’s Dr. Sax with Michael Gizzi and Clark Coolidge, the photo of him shaking hands with Vaclav Havel) but precisely because it’s a shop stocked by a man who knows that reading a book, whether the pulpiest mass market, the most surreal love poetry, or the humblest picture book, can reveal in any person of any age limitless reservoirs of imagination, of wonder, of hope. In the E-Age, selling print books is about as countercultural an activity as you can engage in in these United States.
That’s one of the reasons, but not the only, that puts me in my car 2 ½ hours ’round-trip three days a week. On one of those three days, I usually get a compliment on the store’s selection, which has been cultivated by Matt through nearly four decades of his own literary love affairs—but is also the result of a bookman having a deep and ongoing conversation with his community. Because he loves to hear what people love to read, whether they’re old friends or new acquaintances, they in turn allow Matt to suggest books they might not otherwise consider, enlarging their own point of view. It’s buoying to observe and it happens all the time.
If you’ve read Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, you might have seen Matt’s name before. This contemporary epic of motherhood and community was written on December 22, 1978 at 100 Main Street in Lenox, down the street and around the corner from The Bookstore. Almost everything in Lenox is down the street and around the corner. Matt appears a couple of times, but the most notable occurs near the end of Part III, on page 53 of the latest New Directions paperback (NDP876). On the preceding page, standing in the health food store, the question comes: “You think something like a book will change the world, don’t you?” The answer, in the next line: “I do, I take pleasure in taking the milk with the most cream”. A few lines later brings us to this wonderful decision:
Let’s go in to the bookstore to see Matthew Tannenbaum
The dream figure of the boy-father-mother who turns into
The recalcitrant bookseller as we do
I look over the shoulder
Of a girl flipping through the pages of a book of women’s faces
All beauties, bigger than life, black and white
Scavullo on Beauty
You study poetry and read magazines upstairs
Let me tell you
The titles of all the current books:
The Suicide Cult, The Ends of Power,
The Origin of the Brunists, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
War and Remembrance, The Winds of War, The Dogs of War, Dog Soldiers,
Mommie Dearest, My Moby Dick, My Mother Myself, By Myself, Uncle,
Mortal Friends, Nappy Edges, Tender Miracles,
Song of Solomon, Delta of Venus, The Women’s Room,
Ladies Man, Six Men, The Water-Method Man, Watership Down,
The Night People, Shepherds of the Night, A Dream Journey,
Daniel Martin, Delmore Schwartz, Edith Wharton,
Time and Again, Better Times Than These, Centennial,
The Professor of Desire, The Honorable Schoolboy,
Heart Beat, The Third Mind, Jack’s Book,
Beasts, The Magus, The Flounder, The Fabricator,
Words of Advice, Secrets and Surprises, Dispatches,
Prelude to Terror, Full Disclosure, Final Payments,
The World of Damon Runyon, The Stories of John Cheever,
Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, Praxis,
The Annotated Shakespeare, The Last Best Hope
There are lots of beautiful things about this passage. There is no more “upstairs”—it’s now a slightly elevated section of the store with our children’s books. We don’t sell magazines; you can find a selection at Loeb’s Food Town next door, as well as newspapers. You can, however, still come and study poetry, as we’ve got an entire wall of it in the adjacent Get Lit Wine Bar, where I bartend on Friday nights, sometimes Thursday mornings.
It’s also a delightful snapshot of the publishing world in the late 1970s. One title in particular stands out: My Moby Dick by William Humphrey, a romp about a colossal trout and the fanatical angler out to hook him. It’s out of print, and we recently tracked down a used copy for someone. The Lenox connection is significant: Melville wrote Moby-Dick not but a few miles from The Bookstore at Arrowhead, on the Lenox-Pittsfield line. I pass by it every day on the way to work.
In my own decade-long career as a bookman, I’ve worked at various Borders and Barnes & Noble locations. I was the textbook manager at the Yale Bookstore. For a number of years, I was a manager at another great independent, the Northshire Bookstore, in Manchester Center, Vermont. I’ve worked for and with great people who have enriched my literary vocabulary, often in ways I never would’ve predicted. I’ve also worked for and with people who, in the end of the day, could’ve been selling hemorrhoid cream for all they cared, so long as you bought something from them.
The Bookstore is different.
Every once in a while, I’ll get a customer who, rather wistfully, goes on about how great it would be to own a bookstore. I try not to disabuse them. Those reveries of lounging around, talking literature the live-long are quickly erased when you have to deal with the day-to-day operations of unpacking, stocking, ordering, organizing the store. It never ends. But since we’re working with books, it’s a joy, and occasionally, moreso than any other bookstore I’ve worked at, we do get a chance to kick back and talk. About books, yes, but also about life. That is, after all, where the books comes from. It helps when Bookstore friends like Alice Brock, Bill Corbett, Harry Mathews, or Geoff Young stop in to say hello.
Anyone drawn to this blog is probably aware that the publishing industry is in—O clichéd phrase—a state of flux. We talk about this from time to time at The Bookstore. The conclusion we always come to is to keep doing what we’re doing, which is: to stock the best books, new and old, by the best writers from a variety of eras and styles and let great readers come find us. And they do. Every day.
Anyway, it’s too late to stop now. We don’t have every book ever printed available in the store for you to purchase. No one does, not even Amazon. But we do have a lot of great books, and there’s a good chance a few of those great books you’ve never heard of. So, like I said, come on in. I think of The Bookstore as like Ruthie in her honky-tonk lagoon.
We may not always have what you need, but we definitely have what you want.
* We always have lots of readings at The Bookstore, but one that Best American Poetry readers might be interested in is Peter Gizzi and Bernadette Mayer, Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.