The Little Independent Bookstore that Could Stars in a Charming Documentary
It is simply called “The Bookstore”, and one of its salient features is the serendipity of discovery among its haphazardly organized books. Titles in “Travel and Adventure” are stocked next to “Shakespeare’s Plays” with no rhyme or reason for the books’ placement except The Bookstore’s inimitable logic makes for pleasurable, satisfying browsing. “Hello, Bookstore,” the documentary directed by A.B. Zax, is a virtual yet tactile experience for viewers touring the shelves with Matthew Tannenbaum, The Bookstore’s owner. It’s also a ticket to Tannenbaum’s Quixotic adventure in owning an independent bookstore in the small town of Lenox, Massachusetts.
Now in his 70s, with a mass of gray curls often pulled back into a ponytail, Tannenbaum has a deep and abiding love for literature. He shared that love for all things literary with his customers and in his 2009 memoir in which he recalls his days as a young bookseller at the famed Gotham Book Mart in New York City. Recently discharged from the Navy, he had met a fellow sailor who introduced him to the works of Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jack Kerouac. Through Miller’s work, he encountered Anais Nin who led him to the Gotham — the only bookstore in the country selling her books at that time.
Tannenbaum then brought his love of books to the Berkshires where he bought The Bookstore in 1976. The space was originally the site of the famous Alice’s Restaurant, which Arlo Guthrie immortalized in a 20-minute anti-war ballad that came to be played by radio stations across the country on Thanksgiving Day. A decade after buying The Bookstore, Tannenbaum was widowed and raised his two young daughters alone.
Despite his life struggles, Tannenbaum has been holding court in his store for almost 50 years, while practicing the art of handselling books. He also brought some of Gotham’s spirit to the place. Like Gotham, The Bookstore has the feel of an antiquarian bookstore even though the books are new, or perhaps more accurately, they are not used. It’s not unusual for Tannenbaum to still carry books that have gone out of print.
When Tannenbaum worked for Gotham’s legendary owner Frances Stelloff, he sorted books in an alcove where she handled the bookstore’s business. “Frances had her finger on the pulse, but she didn’t read books,” says Tannenbaum. Unlike his mentor, Tannenbaum reads everything on which he can get his hands. His extraordinary passion for books is evident as he reads several passages of his favorite books on camera. His choices include profound children’s books like Maurice Sendak’s “Higglety Piggledt Pop!, Or There Must Be More Life.” His wide-ranging taste runs from Willa Cather to Philip Roth and Gustave Flaubert. Tannenbaum’s wonderful compilation of writers mirrors his bookstore’s delightful and quirky curation. He happily guides his customers to the beating heart of the poetry and the literary prose he so cherishes.
And he has channeled some of Gotham’s spirit to The Bookstore. He too has an alcove where he orders books and pays the store’s bills. It’s decorated with memorabilia from Alice’s restaurant. There is even a sign designating the space as a “Cozy Nook”. He extends that feeling of coziness by setting up the store’s one floor as a living room, in which books crowd the bookshelves lining the walls. Of note is how the 86-minute documentary takes place entirely in The Bookstore. By the end, we understand why are grateful with him as he sits in a chair “surrounded by things I love. I talk to people about those things. I’m only interrupted to make a sale.”
Zax began his loving tribute to The Bookstore in 2019 and continued filming throughout the ensuing months of COVID-19. He subtly captures Tannenbaum’s unwavering love for his bookstore during the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, Tannenbaum’s weekly sales were equal to the money he used to make in a day.
Zax also shows the passing of time through the seasons. Leaves crunch underfoot as Tannenbaum readies his customers’ orders for curbside pickup. The pandemic’s darkness contrasts with the backdrop of long, gray winter afternoons. Yet Tannenbaum stands by his customers, reinventing his bookstore to stand in as a different haven. His dedication is amply rewarded. When he can’t pay his bills and publishers are on the verge of cutting off his credit, he starts a GoFundMe campaign and raises the money he needs to keep The Bookstore’s doors open. When he raises an additional $60,000, he muses that he’s the George Bailey of Lenox – the fictional hero of the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life in which George’s neighbors collect enough money to avert the closing of his family’s “Savings and Loan”.
As the community came to his rescue, Tannenbaum noted they have a collective share in The Bookstore. He tells supporters the store “is as much yours as it is mine. And I feel the pressure to do this place justice.” He says the magic never dies in an independent bookstore. Nor does storytelling’s oral tradition, which beautifully unfurls in Zax’s documentary.
“There are two types of people,” says Tannenbaum, who deserves the last word, “one who writes novels and one who sits at a bar and tells you about the books he loves. I’ve been sitting at the bar for [over] 43 years.” And he could not be happier or more fulfilled sharing his favorite books to appreciative customers.
1 hr 26 min
Judy Bolton-Fasman is the author of ASYLUM: A Memoir of Family Secrets from Mandel Vilar Press.
How does Hello, Bookstore become a tactile experience for the viewer?
Discuss the community of neighbors and readers Matthew Tannenbaum forged around him?
What does Hello, Bookstore convey about the importance of an independent bookstore in a community?
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