Lenox — Matthew Tannenbaum says if you come to The Bookstore here on Housatonic Street you won’t leave without a joke or a story from him, along with whatever you bought after he shows you a poem, or reads you the most heart-stopping passage from a novel, or describes it to you in a way that makes you swoon and remember how much you love to be dropped into a great tale.
“If you’re lucky, you’ll just get a story,” he jokes.
The store with the motto, “serving the community since last Tuesday” is about to turn 40. An all-day celebration is planned for this Friday, April 1, when there will be readings and music and all kinds of fun and refreshments in its circa 2010 Get Lit Wine Bar.
Tannenbaum knows all about good stories and how they are made and published; he loved to write and he knows writers and poets and has spent most of his life working in the bookselling world. He started out at Greenwich Village’s Gotham Book Mart in the 1960s and 70s, where Tennessee Williams once came in and shook his hand, “only in response to my shaking his,” and where he got to know Patti Smith and almost tripped over J.D. Salinger. He wrote a little book about his adventures there, My Years at The Gotham Book Mart with Frances Steloff, Proprietor.
The Bookstore, with its own small publishing press in the basement, was here even before Tannenbaum bought it in 1976, just after his 30th birthday. The store was founded by David Silverstein in the living room of a rented house behind the alley of the famed Alice’s Restaurant in Stockbridge. When Tannenbaum was considering the purchase, local blacksmith Jerry Felton told him, “don’t back out now, we need a good communist bookstore.” Felton died in a car crash days later.
Tannenbaum grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, and found Steloff and bookselling after a series of events beginning with falling in love on a beach that led to his being drafted during the Vietnam War because he had lost his deferment when he didn’t graduate from college. He ended up in the Navy “to get out of the Army because it was safer,” and got honorably discharged “after I convinced them I was crazy.” Naturally, that’s when he started writing. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, with its military satire, resonated with him around this time, he said.
So there he was with a bookstore in 1976 when, he said, “inflation was in the double digits, the Vietnam war was over, Carter had become President, and fashion was awful.”
The store is “a big part of the community,” Tannenbaum says, and “friendly to readers and writers.” Its reputation has travelled far, and has even reached Japan, from where a film crew once came to interview him for a travel show. He’s had several write ups for in-flight magazines as well. And when the well-heeled and well-known come to town, they stop in to check things out. Actor Uma Thurman once sauntered into the children’s section and left with a massive purchase of classic books, which Tannenbaum says “never get old,” but often get buried in the vastness of newer titles.
“It has something to do with a reputation for quality, and a connection to customers,” he said. Ted Wilentz, a mentor who started the 8th Street Bookshop in New York once told him: “A good bookseller stands behind the writer and ahead of the reader.”
It’s also been a place of comfort, in that special way good bookstores are, for people who want to step out of modern life’s constant buzzing, and in this summer vacation town, find relief from a certain resort-community hazard. “Sundays are important in the summer, but mostly for those who have houseguests, so [the hosts] can get out of the house,” he says. The store is the only one around, he adds, that opens at 9 a.m., and he says he does a good trade in that first hour.
In 2010 he opened the Get Lit Wine Bar in the room next door that also holds a well-stocked poetry collection. The wine bar, he said, is “homage” to Lenox resident and friend Jan Weiner, a Prague-born Jewish “scholar, soldier and writer” who ran from the Nazis, and whose story was the basis for the movie, Fighter. Just before Weiner died, he had had a stroke and was hospitalized in Prague. Tannenbaum went to cafes in the evenings after visiting Weiner in the hospital, and it inspired him to create that ambience in his shop.
But it hasn’t been all jokes and fun in the bookselling life for Tannenbaum. After his wife Sheila died in the mid-1990s, he raised his two daughters, Sophie and Shawnee. “The three of us raised each other,” he says the three liked to tell each other.
And as far as making a living goes, Tannenbaum says, “there have been lean years and really good years.” He says the overall trajectory over 40 years has been up. And while he’s lost some customers to e-books, he says, he’s replaced them and keeps adding new traditional book buyers.
“I love to turn people on to books,” he said. He’s not kidding, either. He read this reporter a passage from Jack Kerouac’s Dr. Sax, which she had never even heard of. I grabbed it from him before he could put it away and put it on the counter. I also got my very own copies of On The Road and Catch-22, books that throw you into depression when they end because the story has to end somewhere. Those are the kinds of books you find in Tannenbaum’s shop, and you can go there and connect with a man who loves them just as passionately.
Tannenbaum doesn’t just tell jokes and stories. He gives advice, too. “We have advice for people with too many books on their bedside tables.”
“What’s that?” I say.
“Move your bed.”
And if you do go, look for the flying books that hang from the ceiling, and ask him to tell you the story about the time he was walking down a street in Manhattan, and a self-help book came flying through a high window and landed in front of him, open. He flipped it over with his foot to see the title, put out his arms, and told a small crowd that had assembled around it, “I’ll handle this — I’m a professional book dealer.”
“I guess that’s when I said to the world that that’s who I was.”
The Bookstore is at 11 Housatonic Street, Lenox, Massachusetts.