Books of Dreams
Indie bookstores hold their own
The Berkshires is a renowned literary destination for classic literature thanks to attractions like Herman Melville’s Arrowhead and Edith Wharton’s The Mount. But when it comes to indie bookstores and 21st-century reading material, there are far fewer choices.
The American Booksellers Association (ABA) reports that indie bookstores are thriving, with a rise in sales from the previous year and a healthy number of new stores opening. Talk to area proprietors, and you’ll find that the job is more than selling books.
“Bookstores play a number of roles in their communities, from being gathering places for book- and writing-related events, to providing sources of knowledge, to being a place of respite from the flurry of everyday life,” says Pamela Pescosolido, owner of the Bookloft in Great Barrington. (Photo: Pamela Pescosolido is surrounded by her staff at the Bookloft, a go-to place not only to browse for and buy books, but also for author events and poetry nights.)
Pescosolido purchased the Great Barrington store two years ago following a 40-plus-year run under the ownership of Eric and Ev Wilska. She’s worked to keep the community status of the store by hosting author events and monthly poetry nights, though the simple interaction with a human being can make all the difference.
“Many of our customers prefer the local bookstore to online shopping because we have experienced booksellers who are happy to give recommendations, ideas, or just chat about favorite books,” Pescosolido says. “Amazon can’t do that.” Still, it can be tough to maintain business. Book sales may be up slightly nationwide, but hers went down last year.
Matt Tannenbaum, who has owned The Bookstore in Lenox for 42 years, calls the personal interaction aspect of bookselling part of his art. This artform is knowing his customers so well that he can hand them books to read even if he himself has never read them. He creates personalized service by knowing publishers and editors and writers, and by paying attention to what his customers buy and enjoy.
“A book is a great journey that a customer will take, so you want to learn how to size up your customer and size up your inventory and match them up. The exchange is not just a book for money,” says Tannenbaum, who’s never made much money with the store, and that’s not really important to him.
“I make more than money in my career,” he says. “I make a very pleasant place to live. I love going to work just about every day.”
Tannenbaum has resisted expanding beyond books, but his Get Lit Wine Bar, which he added in 2010, has built on the ideas of community and conversation. Open Fridays and Saturdays with loose hours during the week, he says, “It has just become one more spot of conviviality in the already community-minded atmosphere of The Bookstore. The town has been very supportive and we draw a good mix of locals and out-of-towners, with repeat customers making it another destination when they come to the Berkshires.”
The Williams College Bookstore isn’t exactly an indie bookshop, but its roots are in that world, and it is attempting to carry some of that into its current incarnation. The former Water Street Books moved to its current location on Spring Street in Williamstown last summer following a $10.5-million building project through Williams College.
Owned by the Follet Group, it strives for an indie-bookstore atmosphere featuring ample lounging and perusing space alongside a café.
The transition has given the business a new lease on life and the logistical flexibility to use its space more creatively. The goal was to become “a space for books and thought beyond just retail,” says manager Richard Simpson says. “The store is so different from the previous location. We have so much more foot traffic now that we’re on Spring Street, so more people stop in. The support has been so positive and beneficial as we break in the new store.”
It’s a combination of these models that Michael Schiavo is looking to create in North Adams. Schiavo works for Tannenbaum at The Bookstore in Lenox and has worked at bookstores his whole life. He’s using those lessons as a guide for his own bookstore, The Unruly Servant, which he hopes to open later this year.
Schiavo worked with 1Berkshire in their Business Bootcamp program to develop the idea and is now trying to solidify a startup goal of $250,000 for a 2,000-square-foot space, where he plans to include a bar and café alongside the bookstore, as well as other audience-expanding offerings like vinyl records and a generous children’s section.
“When people go into bookstores, unless they are looking for a specific title, they don’t know what they want, and they want to have that conversation and be guided in a way to different things.” Schiavo says. “That hospitality element for great independent bookstores has always been there.”