hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture September 2021


A season of prose and poetry

Events across region celebrate writers and their words



Matt Tannenbaum, the proprietor of The Bookstore in Lenox, Mass., for the past 45 years, stands behind the counter at the store’s wine bar. The store is the focus of a new documentary that will debut this month at the Berkshire International Film Festival. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.

Despite a strong midday sun, the road was all green shadow thanks to trees thick and tall as a god’s fingers. My old block trees were like zoo elephants -- one or two specimens stunted by a cement habitat. But this chaos of greenery had my heart calling dibs.”


Quiara Alegría Hudes begins her new memoir, “My Broken Language,” the summer her family moves from the city to a rented house on a horse farm where her mother can lay out a garden with twine and compass and a walking stick, planting herbs by sun and shadow.

Hudes already holds the Pulitzer Prize as a playwright for “Water by the Spoonful,” which tells the story of a wounded veteran of the Iraq War. She is the screenwriter of the film “In the Heights” and co-author with Lin-Manuel Miranda of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
And she will visit the region this month. On Sept. 25, she’ll join a gathering of writers at the Albany Book Festival and sit down to talk with WAMC Northeast Public Radio’s Sarah LaDuke, producer of “The Book Show.”

September is an active time for books and for writers. Colleges and bookstores gather energy. As the nights turn crisp, even in an unsettled time, people are finding ways to get outside or curl up with a story at home.


Sustaining the printed word
One proof of the persistence of words will come early in the month. The Berkshire International Film Festival will screen a new feature film about The Bookstore in Lenox and the community that has carried it through the pandemic.

As an independent bookshop, it has already proved durable and deeply rooted. Matt Tannenbaum has run the store here for more than 40 years.

Filmmaker Adam Zax knows the family and the bookstore well, Tannenbaum said. Zax has wandered through the shop, listening to Tannenbaum talk with visitors as they come in, watching him hand someone a book or offer a joke or a casual recommendation. He has heard Tannenbaum tell stories from his view at the center of town, and in the world of books in New York City before that. So he asked to film them.

Zax was living in Los Angeles and working on other film projects, Tannenbaum said, and he planned to come east four times for this one, in four seasons. They began filming in fall of 2019 and again in December, in time to see the snow from an early season storm. And then in March 2020, Zax and his wife came to the Berkshires, because she is originally from here, and they stayed into the pandemic.

“Adam filmed all through the lockdown,” Tannenbaum said.
He filmed in the spring of 2020, as the bookstore closed down, like every other local shop, and then navigated re-opening for curbside pickup. Tannenbaum’s first grandchild, Siena, was born that spring.

Zax came to the shop to sit with Tannenbaum alone inside, as people came up to gather books and give credit card info through the closed glass door.

And in the summer of 2020, with bills coming due and revenue sharply down, Zax filmed on as Tannenbaum ran a GoFundMe campaign to save the bookstore, and the community rallied around him. They raised $60,000 the day the campaign went live -- on a Tuesday, in honor of the store’s motto: Tannenbaum has been “serving the community since last Tuesday” since he bought the store on a Tuesday, on April 1, 1976.

The GoFundMe campaign went on to raise more than $120,000 in all.
By the time the Bookstore lifted mask requirements and reopened for walk-in visitors this summer, Zax was finishing “Hello Bookstore,” and it had become one of two local films at this year’s Berkshire International Film Festival. The other is “Speak What We Feel,” a documentary by Kevin G. Coleman and Patrick J. Toole about children participating in Shakespeare & Company’s annual fall festival of plays.

Writers in town
Although some events are going virtual this fall for safety, some are finding ways to resume in person while the warm weather holds.

Award-winning poets will share their words aloud. Cave Canem fellow Rage Hezekiah, author of “Stray Harbor” and assistant director of academic and international student services at Bennington College, will read at the Robert Frost House on Sept. 9, and Meg Day, author of “Last Psalm at Sea Level,” at MCLA on Oct. 20, both of them reckoning with pain, strength and desire -- and a joyfully unleashed power of consent and affirmation.

Writing festivals are reconvening in different ways. Earlier this summer on WAMC, Tannenbaum recommended author and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad  Akhtar and his new novel, “Homeland Elegies,” and this month readers will have a chance to hear or meet him.
Akhtar will speak virtually in early October as the Spencertown Academy moves its annual Festival of Books later into the fall and online from Oct. 7-19.

And on Sept. 25, Akhtar will be in conversation with Amavita Kumar, author of “A Time Outside This Time,” at the fourth annual Albany Book Festival presented by the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany.

They will hold events on campus all day, UAlbany journalism professor Mike Huber said, with a wide-ranging lineup of writers in fiction and nonfiction. The writers will share their work and sit down in conversation, and all of the festival’s events are free and open to everyone.

Best-selling writers Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Dana Spiotta will talk together about their fiction, and Farah Jasmine Griffin will reflect on her book, “Read Until You Understand,” due out Sept. 14. She writes that the title comes from a line her father, who died when she was 9, wrote in a note to her, and she has made it central to a book “about love of the majestic power of words and love of the magnificence of Black life.”

In the same vein, in her memoir, Hudes remembers warm afternoons with her mother, sharing and feeling a strength in words -- speaking Spanish outdoors away from her father, speaking prayers out loud and rituals from many faiths.

“Mom opened her marble notebook and let my fingertips graze the pages. The grooves etched by her cursive were deep willful things. As usual, she had a little boom box an a few tapes. Yoruba drumming, Andean pan flutes, music played low …”


Close look at the past
On Sept. 19, Tannenbaum will come to The Mount to speak with North Adams writer Molly Rideout about “The Farewell,” her summerlong exhibition of writing and art.

Rideout has created a narrative around a local historical figure, Augustus Martin, a photographer from Lenoxdale, an offshoot of Lenox along the Housatonic River where he lived from 1872 to 1961. While Lenox evolved around the vast summer homes of wealthy New York families in the Gilded Age, “the Dale” was a small hub of glass factories, ironworks and mills, and the families who worked in them: French, Italian, Irish.

Some locals still know where to find the old slag heaps from the glass factories and turn up lumps of glass melted and cooled into blue-green cobbles, Tannenbaum said. The Lenox library has one too large to hold in two hands.

The library also has a collection of Martin’s images from glass plates, and at the Mount they are on display along with Rideout’s words, evidence of life and thought in this small, rural town a hundred years ago.

A schoolteacher stands in an empty classroom in a shirtwaist that shows how tightly cinched she must wear her corset. Two boys wear wool coats in the snow. Fragments of wood stand piled up, almost sculptural, on a lake shore where the trees have been cut down. A man holding a flat-bladed shovel stands by a chute below a heavy round iron door, as though he is stoking a blast furnace with coal.

Rideout blends historical research and her own ideas as a woman, as a writer, looking at faces in a photograph, Tannenbaum said.

“I’m jealous of this project,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to write about Wharton.”
Sitting at his desk, watching the street through the window, he would imagine Teddy Wharton picking up his wife’s discarded pages and walking into the Heritage House across the way to read them out loud.

Books in a pandemic
Now that The Bookstore has re-opened for walk-in visitors (masked and carefully circumspect), Tannenbaum will look out from his desk by the door at the life in the street and greet people as they come in.

He remembered, in the weeks just before he first took over this desk, coming in and asking the former owner, David Silverstein, for some time to look at the shelves. Tannenbaum was carrying a stack of 3x5 cards to keep track of titles. (This was 1976, long before he started keeping inventory on a computer.)

As he looked through children’s books, he watched Silverstein sitting at the desk and talking with a friend who had walked in. A woman came up with a book, and Silverstein wrote down the title on a legal pad and made change for her, all the while keeping his conversation gently moving.
“And I’m thinking, how am I going to do that?” Tannenbaum said. “He’s so comfortable, and I’ve never owned anything before -- I’ve been a bookseller in a warehouse, a buyer, a stocker. … It took me years to realize that sitting there with a pad and having that conversation was his inventory. He had body memory.”

Tannenbaum knows how that memory feels now. When he goes to Manhattan on a buying trip, he said, when he looks at pallets and boxes stacked with books, he will remember the specific books he has held in his hands. He remembers the stories people have read and asked about and the books he has handed to them.

He has missed these interactions in the pandemic. Running the store through curbside pickup, without people coming in to browse, has been a challenge, he said, and not only for the interruptions in revenue and ordering. He has lost a year of conversations.

Usually they are a constant. Sitting in the same wooden chair, fielding questions and trading jokes from several directions at once, he is hearing from readers as they walk in. They are telling him what they’re looking for and what they are excited about.

“That’s where the originality of the store comes in,” he said.
As he prepared to reopen to visitors this summer, he has been rebuilding, filling in his tables of new titles with some older books he loves and his readers have loved. For a few months, he has run a pop-up shop for secondhand books in a storefront next door.

He looked back to The Bookstore’s first years and the unpredictable challenges he faced then, as he has in these last years.

And he remembered a moment 10 years ago. A man walked into the shop with a young girl. He knelt down by her and put an arm around her and said, “See that man you’re about to buy a book from? He’s the man I used to buy books from when I was a boy.”

“It took 30 years,” Tannenbaum said, “but I became the person I wanted to be.”
He pulls a J.D. Salinger story off the wall, looking for a passage where Salinger is talking directly to his readers.

“He’s saying, ‘I know who you are,’” Tannenbaum said. “And I know who these people are out here and what they hunger for in a book, because I hunger for it too.”