Community's generosity speaks volumes on impact of struggling Lenox bookstore

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LENOX — His shop remains closed to customer traffic, but standing outside the independent bookstore he has owned since 1976, Matt Tannenbaum was much in demand.

One by one, passersby took a moment to greet him and share well-wishes. After all, one said, Lenox wouldn't be the same without The Bookstore.

And judging by the outpouring of financial support — over $65,000 was raised in less than two days — Tannenbaum has received from the community this week, that shop isn't going anywhere.

"Oh my goodness! I am overwhelmed by the support," Tannenbaum posted on the GoFundMe page that he launched Tuesday. "Thank you everyone. So sweet ... I am speechless."

Tannenbaum, 74, set a fundraising goal of $60,000 — the amount he said he needed to stay afloat as the COVID-19 pandemic drags into its sixth month. He picked the target because he felt it was achievable and he didn't want to make it too high, adding that his losses so far this year already exceed that amount.

"If you want me to continue, I am going to need your help," he wrote in his campaign appeal. "The challenge is real and it is immediate."

So far, more than 550 donors have answered the call, well exceeding his initial goal.

'Dire' situation

Interviewed in front of his store Wednesday afternoon, Tannenbaum said he intends to leave the campaign open-ended in order to help pay down debt.

The store and its Get Lit wine bar have been closed since mid-March, except for curbside pickup revenue from preordered books, which falls far short of daily expenses, including rent, insurance, payroll, utilities and the other costs of doing business.

The store's $5,500 share of the government's Paycheck Protection Program in April was consumed swiftly by employee payroll and utility costs, he told The Eagle.

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At some point, he plans to keep the business all in the family by eventually turning it over to his daughter Shawnee, 34, while he stays on as a helping hand.

Tannenbaum got the idea for the fundraiser from business friends, including Daniel Osman, owner of the legendary, quirky Dream Away Lodge in Becket.

"I realized that if I didn't get this money, I wasn't going to make it," Tannenbaum said. "The situation was really dire."

Up to now, reopening the store just didn't feel safe, he said, either for himself or on behalf of his customers. But, with community transmission remaining fairly low in the Berkshires, he is more hopeful.

"I'd like to reopen," he said, "and now with a little breathing room, I can think about it."

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Over the years, the quaint bookshop on Housatonic Street has served as a community center and gathering space, hosting frequent author events and poetry readings.

"I've always been undercapitalized," Tannenbaum acknowledged, "and always basically in debt. So, this could be a golden thing for me, and maybe I'll get out of debt and be in a better position."

Referencing his hands-on, front-desk guidance for generations of book lovers, Tannenbaum recalled that "in the old days I might have sold books to your parents or grandparents. Today, I'm selling them, curbside, to you, to your children and grandchildren."

"As busy as we are every day — and yes, we are thankful we're busy — the fact is this: Business is down, way down," he said. "Sales each week are what they used to be each day."

Independent booksellers — they were an endangered species a decade ago because of competition from chains like Barnes & Noble, the internet commerce juggernaut Amazon and the lure of electronic books — had bounced back before the pandemic struck.

The American Booksellers Association, representing independent owners, recently reported that only 10 of the nation's 2,500 stores had closed permanently because of the pandemic. Before the coronavirus, the association reported gains in net revenue for 2019, despite a slight downtick in overall sales volume.

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A different story

In West Stockbridge, longtime bookseller Eric Wilska, the owner of Shaker Mill Books, said his business has managed to thrive despite the pandemic.

Wilska, who sold The Bookloft in Great Barrington four years ago, after 42 years of ownership, and continued to stock rare books at the Shaker Mill shop, now offers a mix of 95 percent used and 5 percent new volumes.

"We're very fortunate; we've had a very strong, robust internet presence," he said in a phone interview. He has 9,000 books listed on alibris.com and abe.com.

Nevertheless, Wilska stressed, he depends on walk-ins for 70 percent of his business, which reopened July 6 with limited hours daily, except Wednesday. Since the pandemic surged in March, he has been selling the same number of books to half the number of customers — or to put it another way, half as many people are buying just as many books.

At the same time, his internet sales have spiked by 30 percent.

With the help of $7,500 from the Paycheck Protection Program, Wilska was able to retain his veteran part-time employee.

"No question we are fine and we're going to be fine," he said. "It's very gratifying; people are very respectful and so happy to come in. They're book people, and they want to be buying books again."

Tannenbaum, acknowledging that COVID-19 "is more formidable than anything we've ever faced," pointed out that his predecessor, David Silverstein, started The Bookstore on a shoestring with a small loan from a family friend.

"That was 54 years ago," he wrote in his appeal. "I took over 10 years later, and with your help, your devotion, and your commitment, we have made The Bookstore into an institution worthy of its reputation. It's yours as much as it is mine. None of us would even want to imagine it no longer being here."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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