Sunday, November 16, 2008

No One Knows About The Old Book Store

Henry Walz took over the Old Book Store from his father around 1980, correct me if I'm wrong Henry. It was originally opened in 1958 (upstairs where Impress Graphics is now) in the old Northampton Cycles factory. Yes, the one commemorated on the vintage poster you can see in the window of the bike store down on Pleasant Street. It's more or less next-door to Packards and the Masonic Street Laundry. (Am I imagining things or are those the same washers and dryers that have been there since the '70s?) The store is not a snooty antiquarian affair with glass cases and books in plastic. It's a used book store for people. Humans. You and me. Readers who don't get all foamed up and twitchy over first editions and signed copies and phrases like "else fine." This didn't hinder the store's inclusion in the New York Times article about bookstores in the valley and it should only serve as further enticement to you. It's about the content, not the object. Plus it's much cheaper than Raven and far friendlier.Tuesday through Saturday you can come in, comb through the well selected, almost ridiculously inexpensive books, and if you're lucky, listen to Henry hold court with his regulars. How many are there? I can't say. But rarely does a visit to the store pass without someone or two coming in with a warm, sometimes bellowing, hello to the humble, wise, and big hearted proprietor, followed by a conversation that may veer from one subject to the next, as varied as the many categories that order the stacks. Henry appears to have the same kind of relationship with his customers as did Wylie Smith back when For The Record in Amherst was open. I'm sure it requires a lot of patience serving as a therapist of sorts to the faithful.
I am a semi-regular; enough to feel welcome to pipe in to whatever conversation is underway. I've even initiated some. Sometimes people will quip from back in the stacks. But everyone is listening. You can learn a lot this way. Henry is the go to historian for at least the immediate area surrounding the store, and much wider in certain categories. Trains. Bridges. The basic theme is: how it was, how it is now, and what the impact of the change has been. He can tell you about the bears that have come to town and their disposition. He uses tree as a verb, as in "they treed the bear." He has photos and news clippings of the bears and other notable pictures and stories on the walls. Sometimes Henry's sister sits in. She's clearly a Walz but I've yet to subject her to an attempted dialogue of the towering and winding variety. I content myself to look through the books.
Henry knows about the buildings and businesses that have come and gone. He knows to smile politely when a first time visitor, taken in by the store's charm and mom and pop feel, says. "I've always wanted to run a bookstore." He seems unflappable, and has not (yet) gone stark raving mad despite having spent many years there in the semi-subterranean store. Someday I picture him just tossing the keys to one of those new customers, saying, "your dream has come true," and heading out the door. The new arrivals are often stacked in brown grocery bags on the floor inside the door which you have to empty and then return to the bag to inspect. I can't decide whether this is annoying or convenient. Sometimes I'll buy a book, maybe "Life On The Mississippi," for two or three bucks, walk over to the Woodstar for a Cowboy Cookie and an Americana and read it. Ye Olde Watering Hole may have the area's best (only?) Beer Can Museum but the Old Book Store has the Best Wall of Bookmarks. Henry will generally let you use the bathroom behind the bookmarks, which is worth a visit if only for the decor. Bookstore bathrooms are always the best. You'll recall my photos from inside the facilities at the Montague Book Mill.
He buys books, but on some days, again on a brown grocery bag, he writes "Not buying books until Friday," or another day, and tapes it to the door. I haven't asked but I suspect this happens when Henry feels in his bones or knows from his receipts that the balance of supply and demand has tipped too far in the direction of supply.
The collection of fiction is excellent. For a few dollars you can find recent books as well as the classics. Sometimes I'll do a Ouija buy. I'll run my finger along a row of books with my eyes closed and commit to buying whatever I land on.Poetry has always been thin. There's a lot of history, a decent music section, and the art section has some treasures but they don't stick around long. You really have to assess for yourself but I always find it worth a walk down the stairs. Again, the prices are well below whatever you would pay elsewhere except perhaps the league of women voters sales.
This past weekend, I was excited to find that this year's Old Book Store 2009 Calendar was in. They are available for free at the counter until they are gone. They go very quickly. It isn't filled with literary quotes or portraits or this day in history. It is one sheet on card stock with the months laid out in rows and a short sentence about the store. Heck, I'll just scan it and show you. The funny things is, when Henry went to pick them up, he noticed that they were wrong. The days of the week were off by one day. We joked about how the one thing that someone making a calendar should be sure of, it's that the dates are accurate. No level of craft, attractive font, or layout will make up for this detail. "Ah, come on,it's only a day off." He told us that this company had made the same mistake a few years ago. But Henry is about loyalty. So these are the second, corrected run. The others are now a collectors item. I found this review of the store on Judy's Book, a website that claims to reveal secrets:
"Being a student for 4 years in Northampton makes one pretty familiar with local bookstores, but it was only this year (my last) that led me to find the old book store. I had to be living almost on top of it to notice it (FYI it is between the Masonic laundry and Bela or Woodstar cafe), but once I did, I wouldn't come out. Finally cheap books!!! Only used and just the right price. Most expensive book I desired was $8. Most are around $3. And they are not junk either. Good quality books all around in this basement shop. Come once and you'll come back."
As for the name, it's up to you to decide if it's the store that is old or the books. It could mean either or both. The Old Book Store, just off Main Street on Masonic, is a piece of Northampton history that sees no need to change anything.

4 comments:

Kate Thurston said...

Good one, Jim! I love The Old Book Store. I tend to stray away from sitting in book stores, just browsing and browsing, during the warmer months...but the time has come to return to that so cozy and wonderful way to spend some winter afternoons...

Mary E.Carey said...

Yeah, this is a great post. It appears you have really captured the essence of this place.

jaz said...

i love the old bookstore. i used to get my school books there, since i was an english major and could always find the classics....

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jim. It makes me and the store sound pretty good. Henry