Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is It Always a Bad Thing When an Independent Bookstore Closes?

The little hamlet of Amherst, Massachusetts (my home town) used to be a mecca for book buyers. While I was growing up there were no fewer than 7 bookstores in a downtown of two streets: The Goliard Bookshop, Valley Books, Book Marks, Food For Thought, Wooton Books, Albion Bookshop (which morphed into Amherst Books), and The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop. I am sure I am forgetting one or two but these were the heart of the book industry in Amherst. Today only three of the 7 remain with the just-announced closing of The Jeffrey Amherst. You can read about it here in my hometown newspaper.

Now, on the surface, it is a bad thing for a book store to close...I feel the same way about closing bookstores as I do about closing a church: it can't possibly make the community better, can it? However, perhaps this kneejerk reaction should be revised? The Jeff hasn't been able to find a buyer even though it is situated cozily next to the primary stationary and news shop in town. The foot traffic is great, the community is literate and educated, the store has a built-in clientele, so why isn't it working? Well, I think a look at the three survivors in town will tell you why it might not be a bad thing. The three survivors in Amherst are: Amherst Books, Food For Thought, and Valley Books. Let's start with old gray beard, Valley Books.

(Valley Books interior, from the website)

Valley Books will never close unless its owner, Larry Pruner, chooses to close. In business for 30+ years, Valley Books has been located in four locations around town (that I know of). With the best blend of used books, rare books, first editions, new and recently published titles, a HUGE used/half-price fiction section, Larry has carved out a niche in Amherst as the place to turn for a cheap copy of Catcher in the Rye (always in demand in a college town), an out-of-print book by Paul Tillich, as well as a copy of the recently published book on the Celtics's 2008 season. Know your audience...and Larry does. (Plus he kinda looks like a character out of a Dickens novel...just don't tell him I wrote that!)

(Exterior of Amherst Books on the corner of Main and South Pleasant Street)
Amherst Books, run by Amherst bookstore stallwart Nat Herold, is the where the academic community goes for Lacan, Badiou, Islamic history, west Indian poetry, or any other scholarly need. Amherst Books and Nat Herold have been around in other guises for decades. Amherst Books used to be Atticus Bookshop which used to be Albion Bookshop. Whatever the name, it has been one of Amherst most popular stores for years. Nat Herold, on the other hand, is one of the saviest booksellers the town has ever seen. As the owner of The Goliard Bookshop, he put together one of the best academic bookstores in the history of the profession. Back in the heady '80's when the continental thinkers were invading English departments and bookshops, all of them could be found at Goliard...sort of. There were books everywhere. On the floor, piled up on tables, sometimes in boxes. They had it, but you needed to find it. All that charm plus if you were lucky you could play a round of Nerf H-O-R-S-E with Guy Spencer, poet Jim Hoag, or poet James Tate on any given Saturday afternoon. The academic trend continues in Nat's new store, Amherst Books. He, also, knows his audience...

(Exterior of the Food For Thought Book Collective from the website)

Finally, there is Food For Thought Books. First and foremost you need to know two things about the store that has always set it apart from almost every store in not just Amherst, but the whole country. 1) They are a worker's collective. 2) They are a leftwing, multicultural (for lack of a better word) store. Their politics are their identity. All the sections are stuffed with books from New Press, Verso, and myriad other academic and left leaning presses. The history sections as well as the sections focusing on women's studies, African-American studies, gay and lesbian studies and literature, as well as various sidelights which will appeal to all manner of lefties make Food For Thought more of an "experience" than the other two shops. But, again, Food For Thought has carved out a political and social niche within bookselling and it is the place you are most likely to run into Robert Paul Wolff or John Bracey.

What these three survivors have that The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop did not is specificity. Used books, Academic books, Progressive books...each one knows who their audience is and they cater to them. The Jeff didn't. It was a general interest bookshop that, excluding the owner's community involvement as separate and should continue even once the store is closed, didn't offer much to any of the communities listed above which make up the lion's share of the residents of the Amherst area. The locals in the "happy valley" are almost all uniformly interested in a bargain (a la crusty New Englanders)-used books; are almost all connected to the five colleges (three in the town itself) and draw their money and livelihood from academics-hence, academic books; would have elected John Anderson, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry respectively-so, yeah, progressive books would sell. All of this written, I would be remiss if I didn't add that all three remaining stores also carry general interest books too. You can always find the NYT bestseller in town-even with The Jeff's shutdown.

In the final analysis, Amherst is losing a good community member but that is really it. The market is now about specificity and the closing of The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop is, I hate to write it, good news for the remaining stores in Amherst.

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