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‘Hello, Bookstore’ shows why we need community

It is not about shopping, or even about reading. It is about having your soul touched.

The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts. Video screen grab

The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts. Video screen grab

(RNS) — For many summers, this was my family’s routine.

On July 1, we would pack up our stuff and drive up to Lenox, Massachusetts, to the Berkshires. We would rent a house, rendezvous with beloved friends, go to Tanglewood, eat and relax. To me, Lenox is second only to Jerusalem in the way it awakens my soul.

Inevitably, the opening day routine would go like this: We would unpack, and the first place I’d go was to The Bookstore in Lenox to say hello to its owner, Matt Tannenbaum, and to see if there were any new books.

That would be in the morning. By mid afternoon, I would return to The Bookstore, on the off chance a new book had been published since the morning and had made its way onto Matthew’s shelves.

To this day, I can go through my voluminous library and point out which books I got at The Bookstore. More than that, when my first book was published in 1992, Matt graciously opened the doors of The Bookstore for a book launch party. 

Matthew Tannenbaum, left, and Jeff Salkin in front of The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Salkin

Matthew Tannenbaum, left, and Jeff Salkin in front of The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Salkin

That is how central that place has been in my life. How I love it — every square inch of bookshelf. I even love the bathroom, where there was a wonderful satirical poster, purportedly from the McCarthy era, that asked the question: Is your bathroom breeding Bolsheviks? I remember Jo, of blessed memory, an older woman who was perpetually young, with long white hair, who worked for Matt for years, giving him respite to care for his daughters after the death of his wife. 

That is why the new documentary, “Hello Bookstore,” moved me to tears. Because it is not only the story of a man’s passion for books and his customers, it is about the meaning of community — a word we banter about a great deal but rarely define. 

“Hello, Bookstore” defines community. It is the story of Matt’s efforts (successful, of course) to maintain his business during the pandemic at a time when he simply could not let people into his store to browse and hang out — which is the core of The Bookstore’s mission. 

The movie opens with Matthew telling customers, through a closed door, that he simply cannot let them in (“no, not even you,”) and that there is no browsing. He delivers this message to each customer with great patience, and you can see how it is killing him to do so. And yet, there he is, giving book recommendations through the door.  

Matt grew up in suburban Maryland. After a stint in the Navy, he apprenticed at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City — arguably the most famous independent book store in the United States — and subsequently bought The Bookstore in 1976. In a small town where stores come and go, his establishment is seemingly eternal — as the store’s bookmark says, “open since last Tuesday.”

What makes this movie Jewish — or at least Jew-ish, or Jewish adjacent?

First, because being in the book trade is quintessentially Jewish. I write these words from Jerusalem. This morning, I strolled past a street named for Mendele Mocher Sforim, a Yiddish writer who was, by trade, a book seller.

Second, because of the very nature of reading and books themselves. While Matt is clearly the star of the movie, the books themselves would win awards for best supporting actors and actresses. There are numerous moments in the film in which we see Matt reading aloud to his customers.

 

In one scene, Matt notices a customer. “Look at the smile on that guy’s face. He found a book.” This is the story of how one man pays attention and genuinely sees his customers in ways few of them have ever been seen; a man who meticulously pays attention to his product and those who buy it, inviting each customer into an intimacy they would rarely find in the consumer world. Just look at how he lovingly wraps each book for shipment, affixing the sticker from the store. 

Try getting that from Amazon.

Third, because this is about community — not just people who hang out together, but people who have at the core of their togetherness a commitment to a common ideal of value. This film is about what it means to create a literary community — which might have existed for just a few moments for each person who was there, but for a few moments, it was real and powerful and it was filled with eternity. 

This is why we need independent bookstores: for people who love books, so they can buy books from people who themselves know and love books. 

Fourth, this is a Jewish story because Matt has one of the best Judaica sections, exceeding that of any independent book store I have visited and putting Barnes & Noble to shame. 

Matt confesses to us that he was never that good as a businessman. Well, something has kept him afloat for more than 45 years. That would be the devotion of his customers. The film is, at its heart, the story of the campaign to save the bookstore in the wake of the pandemic. Matt sent out a mass mailing to his loyal customers. Within a few days, his Go Fund Me campaign raised more than $60,000.

The movie ends with him telling the story of the first time he saw a moose and asking himself: “Do moose eat Jews?”  

Not that Jew. Not Matt Tannenbaum. 

Watch the movie, and then, wherever you are — go to The Bookstore. 

It will not be a commercial experience. It will not even be just a literary experience. 

It will be about the meaning of a spiritual community, and that is a lesson so many of us crave today. In a world wherein the secondary pandemic has been the plague of loneliness, how wonderful to know there is a place where a man will greet you with a word of great literature and that it will go right into your soul. 

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