Where Wise Men Also Fish
A bookstore in the Berkshires
By Wiley Wood
The Bookstore has been in the same brick building in Lenox, Mass., for five decades and is something of a pilgrimage site. Still, why travel to a bookstore when just about any book you can think of is available online?
As I push open the bookstore’s heavy glass door, I start to remember. Before me is a spacious, well-lighted room with books on the walls and more books laid out on tables across the floor space.
The hardbacks immediately ahead require more of a commitment than I’m prepared to make, but I can’t help admiring Elif Batuman’s coming-of-age novel “The Idiot,” in its pearl pink jacket, and considering Mohsen Hamid’s “Exit West,” about a family in Pakistan weighing relocation to a safer part of the world.
Beyond are the paperbacks, set out face upward on a long table. They form a mosaic that is striking for its diversity: classics and cutting edge; trade publications and small press; fiction, sociology, how-to, hermeneutics. You visit a bookstore to see all the books you aren’t thinking of.
Along the walls is the literature section, which I skim, enjoying its juxtapositions: Junot Diaz, who has injected his high-energy Latino idiom into the mainstream mix, next to Charles Dickens. And a little farther, the Haitian-American novelist Edwige Danticat, next to the French pataphysicist René Daumal, the Algerian Kamel Daoud, the Canadian Robertson Davies and the quirky New Yorker Lydia Davis, represented by her “Collected Stories.”
The author of this assortment is Matthew Tannenbaum, who has owned The Bookstore since 1976. Affable, he is often at his desk by the door, surrounded by drop-in customers exchanging news and conversation.
“What you’re seeing here are the bones after the flesh has been picked off,” says Tannenbaum, waving at gaps in the bookcases. After the holiday rush, he and his assistants strip the shelves of last year’s unsold books before reordering for the busy summer months.
Tannenbaum, young for his 70 years, entered the book trade in the 1960s, clerking at the Gotham Book Mart, the celebrated midtown Manhattan bookstore that served, from its opening in 1920 until it closed in 2007, as a meeting place for generations of American writers.
“I flunked out of college, got drafted, went AWOL,” says Tannenbaum. “When I walked into the Gotham Book Mart, I said, ‘I’m home.’”
He remembers stocking books there and tripping over J. D. Salinger, crouched in the narrow aisles. He once shook hands with Tennessee Williams, who had clerked at the bookstore himself but been fired, famously, after a single day. And Tannenbaum listened as Frances Steloff, the Gotham’s founder and longtime proprietor, dropped tips about the fine points of bookselling.
Always walk a customer back to the shelves when you are asked for a particular book, she told him, particularly when you know the book isn’t there: another book will likely turn up along the way. And Steloff consciously arranged her bookstore to provide a framework for the browser’s experience. Not every great new offering needs to be turned face outward on the shelves, she told Tannenbaum. Some should be left for the customer to find himself.
Above the door of the Gotham Book Mart hung a famous sign: “Wise Men Fish Here.” Tannenbaum doesn’t overtly make the same boast on behalf of The Bookstore but seems mindful of the standards it suggests.
A quick examination of the African-American section, a few short shelves in extent, reveals the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, predictably enough, but also the massive biography of Great Barrington-born W. E. B. Dubois by the historian David Levering Lewis and two volumes of Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movement during the Martin Luther King years. Oh, and a fat paperback of Alex Haley’s “Roots,” whose airing as a TV miniseries in 1977 drew a huge biracial audience. Not a comprehensive selection, maybe, but substantive.
Asked in an interview about his method of selecting inventory, Tannenbaum professed “a strong belief in my own choices in the face of massive marketing campaigns. If a book insults my intelligence or sensibility, it’s not worth selling.” And if a book doesn’t sell, it may still remain on his shelves when he knows it’s good.
In his decades as a bookseller—The Bookstore celebrates its 41st year under his ownership on April 1—Tannenbaum has developed an extensive network across the publishing world, allowing him to cherry-pick his books from a wide array of lists. Often, he can buttress his judgment of a book’s value with his personal knowledge of the publisher. And he’s a reader himself, currently working his way through the novels of Patrick Modiano.
Since the new administration came to power in Washington, Tannenbaum finds his customers entering the store with a sharper sense of purpose. Dystopian novels, treatises on the first amendment, collections of Supreme Court decisions are all being examined with fresh attention.
I pick up a big paperback, “The Nixon Tapes: 1973,” which falls open to an Oval Office discussion. “Nixon: It’d be a bitch for us. Kissinger: It’d be a bastard.” They are talking about Taiwan’s possible subsumption by the People’s Republic of China.
“So many people are so much more afraid now,” says Tannenbaum. “People come here looking for comfort. Not just luxurious comfort, but the comfort of a hard history—the chance for you to discover something.”
Photos by Savage Frieze. Top: Matthew Tannenbaum, The Bookstore’s owner, has been advising clients for 40 years.