Amherst History Month By Month: Town Center Shops, Offices, Restaurants, Businesses. Part 2: Bookshops and Book Culture

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Photo: pinterest

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.

Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop, located next to A.J. Hastings on South Pleasant St. Photo: Public Domain

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.

Photo: Hetty Startup
Amherst Books on Main street co-owned by Shannon Ramsey and Nat Herold. Photo: Amherst Books
Photo: Food for Thought Books

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.

Valley Books, on North Pleasant Street. Photo: Valley Books

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 .

Yiddish Book Center Library. Photo: Yiddish Book Center

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. 

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9 thoughts on “Amherst History Month By Month: Town Center Shops, Offices, Restaurants, Businesses. Part 2: Bookshops and Book Culture

  1. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Hetty. You recall a time when my Saturday morning routine was to grab a coffee at Rao’s and then visit two or three of the establishments you mention.
    A couple honorable mentions that were on my route were a magazine/bookstore next to CVS named, I think, the Newsroom, and a used bookstore next to the Carriage Shops called Bookmarks.
    Sadly it appears that Unnameable Books is no longer holding its own. The shop’s space next to the Fire Station has recently been emptied out.
    I dearly hope that Amherst Books will weather the forces assaulting independent bookstores and Downtown Amherst retail. It is a cherished survivor of a bygone era.

  2. Thanks, Jeff for the update on Unnameable Books, and Rob, too, for your tag line. I am working on doing a feature on offices in the downtown next. There may be hundreds of offices?! But I am looking for ones that have interesting architecture and/or stories. And if either of you have other topics you would like to know more about please let me know.

  3. Hetty, thanks for the reminder of the many great shops Amherst hosted for so many years.

  4. Thank you for this, Hetty. Yes, when I was a grad student at UMass in the 90s, Amherst had no less than nine bookstores. Like Jeff Lee, I used to spend hours browsing in Valley Books, Food for Thought Books, Jeffery Amherst Books, Raven Books (Amherst branch), Albion Books, and later, Amherst Books (formerly Atticus Albion). When Valley Books closed I bought a couple of their bookcases, and sentimentally kept the category labels on them. Now Amherst Books is the only one left. This year is its 20th anniversary: we must support it.

    There is a new bookstore in town, though: Restless Books on Main Street, near the Black Sheep, where Albion Books used to be back in the day. Here’s their website: https://restlessbooks.org/.

  5. Hello Josna! I am so glad this brought back memories. And also, thanks for adding the link to Restless Books. Great name for a bookstore. Hetty

  6. P.S. Hetty, I think I misspoke earlier: although I still haven’t gone in, Restless Books seems to be a publishing company—a fascinating one—that sells its own titles in the store.

    Josna Rege

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