Amherst History Month by Month
I want to evoke a time when Amherst would have been known for its lively and very visible book culture downtown. Some of It remains today but has changed from the 1970s through the 1990s when there were seven or eight independent book stores here. My choice of topic is prompted in part by the memory that Asa Hastings’ store, which anchored shopping in the center of town, closed for good about a year ago. While not a bookstore, A.J. Hastings sold many things connected to book culture like writing materials, maps, paper supplies, greetings cards, newspapers (the paper versions), and college-related merchandise. Next door to Hastings was a bookstore called Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop, a place closely associated with Amherst College and its unofficial textbook store.
So imagine a time when walking in town would allow you plenty of choice, not only for buying books — used or new — but also for the unexpected things that can happen when on foot in a town rather than in a car, even here where there is plenty of parking. Surrounded by the predominantly red brick Victorian commercial architecture and private homes designed in the 1800s, you would be able to enjoy the architecture of Amherst College, handsome civic buildings, and open, green spaces that comprise several small nearby parks as well as the Town Common. Most of this is still accessible, although we need to strive to make it universally so. An informative Writers Walk can take you on a route that will furnish you with tree-lined roads where you can learn about the many writers who made — and continue to make — Amherst their chosen home. One of the other wonderful book-related places we can still enjoy is the Levelers Press, a publishing hub that combines Collective Copies and a few other local presses in the same location.
My sentiments about this era are echoed in a wonderful interview from 2014 with the owners of Mystery Train Records (still going strong at 178 North Pleasant Street), in which they mention how the “tangible search” for a special vinyl pressing — meaning discovering it “in person” rather than online — reaches parts of the brain that need to be activated and nourished.
Amherst still has Amherst Books (which grew out of Albion Books), another anchor of our downtown and a wonderful place to listen to live poetry readings or attend other programs. They have survived the pandemic and inhabit one of the most historic of the Victorian ‘blocks’ in town. Around the corner and down a little alley on North Pleasant Street is Unnamable Books, also diversifying and holding its own. Continuing online, but now closed as an actual used bookstore, is Valley Books, which was located in the same building as the Toy Box and Zanna. If you were here in the 1970s, you might also have gone to Food for Thought, a progressive, worker-owned bookstore that is now the new burger and ice cream restaurant place.
There was also an Interfaith Bookstore (LOAS Interfaith Bookstore) located in the Carriage Shops (previously a motel), which were demolished to make room for One East Pleasant student-style apartments.
Much of Amherst’s book scene has really been part of our intangible cultural heritage — a lens, perhaps, through which to understand the merits of historic preservation. This is felt in a continuing and palpable way down the road at the Yiddish Book Center, on the campus of Hampshire College, where exhibits and programs speak to the enduring power of Yiddish culture. Well worth a return visit. And at the nearby Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art .
We continue to be well-served by three wonderful public libraries and with numerous college and university libraries. And other great bookshops in nearby towns.
These include Gray Matter in nearby Hadley, The Library Loft in Palmer (a used book store operated by the Friends of the Palmer Public Library), Odyssey in South Hadley (and the unofficial textbook store for Mount Holyoke College), Broadside Bookshop and the Raven Used Books in Northampton, and the Montague Bookmill. Betsy Frederick, now the sole owner of Raven Used Books in Northampton used to work at Albion Bookshop in Amherst as well as the Montague Bookmill, which mostly sells used books. And the Raven At The Mill bookshop, owned by John Petrovato, was scheduled to open July 7 in the mill building that overlooks the Shelburne Falls potholes.
And coming up, in this quite blatant plug, is Amherst’s annual League of Women Voters book sale, that takes place this weekend, at the Fort River School.. Books and book culture will never, ever die.