“Hello, Bookstore” shows why we need a community

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

On July 1, we were packing up our things and going to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. We would rent a house, catch up with beloved friends, go to Tanglewood, eat and relax. For me, Lenox is second only to Jerusalem in how it awakens my soul.

Inevitably, the opening day routine went like this: we were unboxing and the first place I went was to Lenox’s bookstore to say hello to its owner, Matt Tannenbaum, and see if there were any new books. .

It would be in the morning. In the middle of the afternoon, I returned to La Librairie, in case a new book had been published since the morning and had made its way onto Matthew’s shelves.

To this day, I can browse my voluminous library and point out the books I have purchased from the bookstore. More than that, when my first book was published in 1992, Matt graciously opened the doors to The Bookstore for a book launch party.

That’s how central this place has been in my life. How I like it – every square inch of shelving. I even like the bathroom, where there was a wonderful satirical poster, supposedly from the McCarthy era, that asked the question: Does your bathroom breed Bolsheviks? I remember Jo, of blessed memory, an elderly woman who was perpetually young, with long white hair, who worked for Matt for years, giving him respite to care for his daughters after his wife died. .

That’s why the new documentary, “Hello Bookstore,” moved me to tears. Because it’s not just the story of one man’s passion for books and his customers, it’s about the sense of community, a word that is much joked about but seldom defines.

“Hello, Bookstore” defines the community. It’s the story of Matt’s efforts (successful, of course) to keep his business going during the pandemic at a time when he just couldn’t let people into his store to browse and hang out – which is at the heart of it. of The Bookstore’s mission.

The film opens with Matthew telling customers, through a closed door, that he just can’t let them in (“no, not even you”) and there’s no navigation. He conveys this message to every customer with great patience, and you can see how much it kills him. 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 – arguably the most famous independent bookstore in the United States – and later bought The Bookstore in 1976. In a small town where stores go and come, its the establishment is seemingly forever – as the store’s bookmark states, “open since last Tuesday”.

What makes this film Jewish – or at least Jewish, or Jewish adjacent?

First, because being in the book business is essentially Jewish. I write these words from Jerusalem. This morning I walked down a street named after Mendele Mocher Sforim, a Yiddish writer who was a bookseller by trade.

Second, because of the very nature of reading and the books themselves. While Matt is clearly the star of the film, the books themselves would win awards for Best Supporting Actors and Actresses. There are numerous moments in the film where 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. It’s the story of how one man truly cares and sees his clients in a way few have ever seen; a man who pays meticulous attention to his product and those who buy it, inviting each customer into an intimacy he would rarely find in the consumer world. Watch how he lovingly packs each book for shipping, affixing the store sticker.

Try to get this from Amazon.

Third, because it’s about community – not just people hanging out together, but people who have at the heart of their solidarity a commitment to a common ideal of worth. This film is about what it means to create a literary community – which could have existed for a few moments for every person who was there, but for a few moments it was real and powerful and it was filled with eternity.

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

Fourth, it’s a Jewish story because Matt has one of the best Judaica sections, surpassing that of any independent bookstore I’ve visited and putting Barnes & Noble to shame.

Matt confesses that he has never been so good as a businessman. Well, something kept it afloat for over 45 years. It would be the dedication of its customers. The film is, at its heart, the story of the campaign to save the bookstore in the aftermath of the pandemic. Matt sent out a mass mailing to his loyal customers. Within days, her Go Fund Me campaign raised over $60,000.

The film ends with him recounting the story of the first time he saw a moose and wondering, “Do moose eat Jews?”

Not this Jew. Not Matt Tannenbaum.

Watch the film, then, wherever you are, go to the bookstore.

It will not be a business experience. It won’t even be just a literary experience.

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

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