The Bookstore: Serving Lenox for 2,035 Tuesdays

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Photo Gallery | The Bookstore in Lenox celebrates 40 years

LENOX — For nearly a half century, The Bookstore, a downtown literary emporium and gathering place, has been "serving the community since last Tuesday" — 2,035 Tuesdays by owner Matthew Tannenbaum's count.

This Friday, he celebrates the 40th anniversary of his purchase from the store's founder, David Silverstein, with an all-day party including story-telling, poetry, jokes, music, food and beverages.

He's also turning 70, another milestone, 10 days later, Tannenbaum pointed out during a conversation. He ranks as the third longest-surviving single owner of a downtown business, behind first-place Loeb's Food Town and the Glad Rags clothing boutique.

A native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., Tannenbaum graduated from the local high school and attended American University in Washington, D.C.

He majored in government but preferred to cover sports and rise to editor of the college newspaper, The Eagle, while discovering his passion for classic literature.

"I failed to graduate because I was not interested in my major, didn't go to classes," Tannenbaum confessed. He was drafted during the height of the Vietnam war. "I went into the Navy to get out of the Army," he said, and was posted to the Washington Navy Yard.

"I convinced them it wasn't a good match and they let me go early with an honorable discharge," he recalled. But through a fellow Navy man, he became a devotee of novelists Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, John Fowles and Henry Miller. "These guys opened my eyes to contemporary writing."

After dipping into and dropping out of Brooklyn Law School, Tannenbaum realized his true calling. He started learning the book-selling business from the ground up, landing a job in 1971 as a stock boy at the famed Gotham Book Mart in midtown Manhattan, founded in 1920.

"It was the key to the rest of my life," he pointed out, as he tracked inventory and sales. Before long, he went back to Washington as a shipping clerk at a small-press wholesaler.

In 1975, having discovered the Berkshires after three artist friends relocated here, he moved here without a job but figuring that "somehow I could always stay in the book trade."

A year later, he learned that The Bookstore was for sale, having settled on Housatonic Street after several other short-term locations in Stockbridge and Lenox.

Tannenbaum scraped together several thousand dollars for a down payment with a partner, but by 1977 took over sole ownership, paying "tens of thousands" to the store's founder.

From the start, he provided comfortable chairs for conversation, creating a literary salon with readings by authors and poets.

"There was always a comfort level that you couldn't find in other stores," Tannenbaum commented. "It was like a community."

Notable patrons and visitors included a nearby resident, the famed historian William L. Shirer ("The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich"), photojournalist Stefan Lorant, photographer Lucien Aigner, TV film critic Gene Shalit, actors Richard Dreyfuss, Uma Thurman, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and vocalist Bobby McFerrin, who serenaded customers while waiting in line at the cash register.

Tannenbaum conceded that "we had some bad years. I was new, had bought too many books and made a lot of mistakes. I wasn't going wide enough in my choices, I had a learning curve."

"Recessions have affected us a bit," he added, "but basically we kept growing. I had a daily dollar amount in mind that we should average. At the start, a couple of hundred dollars a day."

"But that was never my driving point," he said. "My job was to have good books for the people and I didn't know how much you had to sell the best-sellers to afford the core books we need to have. These are my 'Gotham books;' my gold standard."

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Tannenbaum is encouraged by the resurgence of stores like his. Though Amazon accounts for nearly two out of three print book sales, e-books have leveled off and declined while the surviving national chain Barnes & Noble may have stabilized after years of struggle.

"The most important thing I've learned was not to compete with something I didn't need to compete with," he said, "because their product was never my product."

Nationwide, there were 1,712 independents last year — a 21 percent increase from 2010.

By maintaining his local orientation and loyal community support, he said, "my business was getting better every year." Nevertheless, he conceded that he lost a few steady customers to Barnes & Noble, Amazon and the growth of Kindle and other e-book devices.

But he credited his survival to "location, reputation and good will. That has just increased, and it's completely intangible, you can't put a dollar value on it."

In 2010, Tannenbaum opened the Get Lit wine bar in the former used books wing, extending his hours into the evenings.

Though downtown Lenox remains highly seasonal, the store retains a steady base of year-round local customers, he said. "Sometimes they just come in to sit and talk, but they know this is the place to get a book."

At the start, having just turned 30, Tannenbaum said he didn't consider whether he would own the store four decades later.

"I never gave it a second thought," he said. "I got overwhelmed by the enjoyment of the business. After the first summer, I thought 'this is good,' I could make a life of this. My only regret was that I wasn't a hometown boy."

Now, Tannenbaum can tell some customers how he sold books to their parents. "That's just the most gratifying," he said.

On the home front, he endured challenges. His wife, Sheila, succumbed to cancer in 1993, the day after their 11th anniversary.

"At times over the next few years, I had the overwhelming feeling that this woman had come into my life, dropped off a couple of kids, and moved on," he said. "I and my daughters, Sophie and Shawnee, like to say, we raised each other." The girls were 3 and 7 when they lost their mother.

"Raising a family is just the best, makes it all worthwhile," he said. "Everything is for that reason."

Shawnee recently turned 30 and Sophie is 26. Tannenbaum, a resident of Housatonic for 31 years, has navigated successfully through several personal health setbacks and hopes to continue as owner for quite some time.

Although Sophie has been working at the store "and enjoying herself," he said, "we're not talking about a succession plan."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

If you go ...

What: The Bookstore's 40th anniversary celebration under Matthew Tannenbaum's ownership, with open-mic appearances by local writers, poets and musicians. Also food and refreshments. An anniversary souvenir book will be on display.

When: 10 a.m. Friday until "sometime in the evening when everyone goes home."

Where: 11 Housatonic St., Lenox.


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