“Who knows what would have become of all of us if our lives hadn’t been the way they are. I’m as glad as can be to do what I did…” — Matt Tannenbaum, by My years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Steloff, owner
Matt Tannenbaum’s world is all about stories – yours, mine, ours. His career began as a young man in 1968 who chronically skipped classes to edit his college newspaper at American University (in Washington, DC) and never graduated. He had planned to become a government major, maybe become a history teacher, and eventually go to law school. But Ann Beattie, columnist for the same college paper (now an acclaimed author), referred him to Fitzgerald and Hemingway – the Rube Goldberg machine for any subsequent decision.
Not completing college meant losing his status as a deferral for Vietnam, so Tannenbaum joined the Navy to avoid harm. There he “met a man who helped me convince my bosses that I really wasn’t the right man for them and that they weren’t the right group for me either.” On the same day he met a woman who told him that if he liked Henry Miller’s writing (which he did) he should check out Anais Nin (Miller’s girlfriend), adding, “And indeed, there’s one place in the world where you have both, and that is the Gotham Book Mart in New York City.”
This is how Matt Tannenbaum became a bookmaker. “I fell in love with this world,” he says forty years later, sitting at a metal coffee table in front of his Lenox bookstore at 11 Housatonic Street, “and I just had the best time.”
Early training and a lucky find
Enthusiastic about books, Tannenbaum applied to Gotham and waited six months to be hired. As a warehouse boy, he would spend hours combing through Gotham’s basement for copies of books that had sold the previous day and “feasting on shelf after subterranean shelf of the greatest literature of my time.” He tells the story of his happy training as an accountant in his 36-page memoirs. My years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Steloff, owner. The stories involve random feats such as holding the original final draft from DH Lawrence Mr noon, nearly tripped over JD Salinger browsing the Sufi section and escorted Alfred Knopf up the stairs to a surprise 85th Birthday party for Steloff and walking through Manhattan wearing the EE Cummings fedora. “To speak of Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart is to recall the entire 20th century in fiction,” he writes.
A Lenox fixture for more than four decades, The Bookstore began in Stockbridge “in the living room of a small rented house down a lane, which housed what was then a little-known cafe, later known as Alice’s Restaurant. ”
The move to Lenox happened sometime in the late ’60s or early ’70s. And the handover from previous owner David Silverstein to Matt Tannenbaum took place on April 1, 1976.
Silverstein owned the store for almost 10 years. “People started calling it ‘David’s Bookstore,'” explains Tannenbaum, “but he wanted to do other things, so he sold his baby to me.” (Tannenbaum bought the store with a small loan from his mother, the he later repaid.) “I came to the Berkshires to be a novelist,” he continues. “But I wrote a story or two and they were awful, so I sold books instead.”
In the early days of buying books to fill his shelves, Tannenbaum combed through trash cans and open boxes at Bookazine (a Manhattan trading center) to look for a specific book by an author and then select a few more. “I didn’t have a budget and I was constantly broke,” he recalls. “Often the small prints didn’t sell, but then I was saved by the John Grisham-like books of the time. I learned by accident.”
Fortunately, the people who worked for him were also readers. A particularly knowledgeable woman named Jo Baldwin, who had worked for Silverstein, stepped in when an employee suddenly quit and ended up staying for 25 years. Tannenbaum credits her with much of his success.
The secret sauce
For those who frequent, or even stumble across, The Bookstore, the usual answer is something like, “There’s nothing quite like it.” The list of “local” authors who have come to read there takes up almost a page of ink and includes figures such as Joan Ackerman, John Ashbery, Roy Blount, Jr., Michael Gizzi, Jamaica Kinkaid, Danny Klein and Jan Weiner. The bookstore’s website is full of Tannenbaum’s folksy, unpretentious videos of book recommendations, often ending with a brief passage from a writer’s birthday celebrating that day.
As well as the readings and books, The Bookstore has an art gallery as Gotham Book Mart did. The Shade Gallery was started in the summer of 1976 by South County artists Jim Youngerman, Alan Silverstein and Michael Ansell to exhibit artists whose work they knew, liked and respected, including fascinating new work from Los Angeles, Boston and New York .
Jan Wiener provided the inspiration for the Get Lit Wine Bar, which Tannenbaum added in 2020. A teacher at Windsor Mountain School in Lenox – and long before that a Czech by birth who fled in 1938 at the age of 18 – Wiener influenced Tannenbaum’s life in a much deeper way than the wine bar. But after a trip to Prague with Wieners, filled with countless visits to small cafes, Tannenbaum asked, “What would you think if we opened a wine bar?” And they did.
The Bookstore website gives these parameters: “…if it’s a Monday to Thursday afternoon, say around 2 or 2:30pm… and you happen to ask if you can light up, the answer is definitely yes, you be able! Some restrictions may apply. But they don’t usually do that.”
The COVID challenge became an opportunity
How does a small-town bookstore survive a pandemic? Not easy. “COVID was what we were served,” says Tannenbaum. “All we could do was try one thing and then try something else.”
Customers “browsed” books by category using website photos of the shelves in the actual bookstore and ordered online through Bookshop.org. They picked up books from the curb the way people picked up library books in packages labeled with their names, and spoke through masks and windows. “We even tried to deliver books,” Tannenbaum admits, “for about a week.”
But the loneliness for Tannenbaum and his associates was devastating, and the debt mounted. “I’ve always been in debt, something booksellers are comfortable with. But I owed Scribner a lot of money and couldn’t pay them,” he explains. When Youngerman suggested creating a “Go Fund Me” page like another company in the area had done, Tannenbaum listened. The response from the community was overwhelming. “We reopened our doors on June 16, 2021. We chose this date because it’s the “Bloomsday” that commemorates the release date of James Joyce Ulysses. I called the local newspaper to announce the appointment. It felt good to reconnect with the community.” Now what? “Everyone seems to be more grateful, thoughtful, and considerate,” he says.
The full story of how The Bookstore came to be and, just as importantly, how it survived the pandemic is told in more detail in the recently released issue Hello bookstore Documentary produced by AB Zax, originating Owen Gleiberman diversity Magazine named one of the “10 Best Movies of 2022 (So Far)”.
How they came up with the documentary’s title is another Christmas tree story. “On my first day owning The Bookstore I got a call from a woman (she never said her name) asking me to leave a message for her painter when he called the store. In fact, the painter called a short time later and I passed the message on and wrote down his reply. It’s the kind of bookstore it was and is,” he says.
Because for Tannenbaum, the most important thing about owning a bookstore is being there for your customers and not just selling them books. He tells a few stories about it. “A woman, an Armenian, comes and always turns the Turkish cookbook so that the cover faces the wall,” he says. “You have to let the customer do that.” Then a little boy came with his mother looking for a copy of Robin Hood for a friend’s birthday. Tannenbaum discovered he didn’t have copies and encouraged the boy to write his own Robin Hood story and give it to his friend instead. “To this day his mother still talks about how important it was for her son to write this story,” he says with a smile.
“Open the World”
When asked about the responsibility of recommending books to certain people (which he clearly enjoys), Tannenbaum pauses. “It’s not that books change people that much, it’s that they open up aspects of the world that they might otherwise overlook. I don’t pretend to have that kind of power, but I still suggest books every day.”
For further explanation he describes the time of his brief training as an actor. “Something important that I learned is that in every scene there is someone who has status and someone who confers status. When I returned to work after my acting experience, I realized the value I have as a bookseller and how important that is to me give status for each customer.”
Pset the baton
What does Tannenbaum have in mind for the near future? Despite being in his seventies, he’s in no hurry to go anywhere. In fact, his only complaint is, “I feel lonely when I’m in the office, away from the retail floor.” However, he’s incredibly happy with his two daughters nearby, his partner Carol, and his beloved bookshop.
He looks forward to passing on his love of books and connection to the local community to his two daughters who live nearby. “Shawnee is starting to do the accounting and shutting down the systems. We used to have a yellow pad system; now we have computer systems,” says Tannenbaum with a smile. While it’s impossible to convey 40 years of experience overnight, it’s the intangibles that matter most to him — the sort of habits his daughters have observed in his style of running the store all their lives.
Would he do anything differently? “The only thing I would change is try to be a little more up to date with the new books when they come out,” he says. Tannenbaum relies heavily on his three employees – Rowen, Renzo and Shepherd – and on salespeople, catalogues, torn pages from literary journals and computer search tools.
His advice for anyone looking to get into the book trade is pretty simple. “Trust the relationships you have with your customers. Really listen to them, whether it’s out of genuine interest or just to see who they are. Know what you don’t know. Rely on your own sense of what to buy for the client and your knowledge of the publisher. And don’t work too hard.”