Today, as a reward to myself after two months of steady work, I finally visited Troubadour Books in North Hatfield, which had been recommended to me as one of the best bookstores in the Pioneer Valley. After spending a couple of hours there, I’m willing to state flatly that it’s the best bookstore in the area, and one of the best I’ve been in anywhere. Bob Willig, the owner, got into the business the way all the good ones do: by buying way, way too many books and realizing opening a bookstore was the only way out. (I’ve thought of it, believe me, but working as assistant manager of a bookstore many years ago pretty much inoculated me against the notion; it’s really, really hard to make a go of selling books. And here’s a moment of pure serendipity—I went in to turn down the radio so I could concentrate on what I was writing; WFCR was playing “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now,” and as I bent down to turn the knob I heard the line “Books are my best company.” Oh, and no, there’s no website; Bob calls himself “computer-illiterate” and has an ancient desktop with a dial-up connection that regulars needle him about.) When I went in (dropped off by my loving and endlessly tolerant wife) I asked Bob where the Russian history books were and if he had any books in Russian; he leaped into action, taking me around the main room (maneuvring past the piles of books in most of the aisles) and saying “Most of the post-medieval stuff is here, below Germany, but the early history is mostly back here, and I’ve got lots of stuff on Orthodoxy in the religion section… I don’t have much in Russian, but what there is is on the top shelf here.” (I’m compressing drastically, since he likes nothing better than talking about books.) Then a young woman came in and asked about Pound’s Cantos; being a Pound fan and a kibitzer, I trailed along to the Modernist nook (Joyce-Pound-Eliot), where Bob was distressed to be unable to find any copies. “That’s terrible, I usually have a bunch of them. I’m really sorry.” Meanwhile, with my eagle eye I noticed one and sang out like a whale-spotter in a crows-nest: “Upper shelf, on the right!” Everyone was happy, and I got into an extended conversation about Pound, anti-Semitism, Zukofsky, and the sad propensity of otherwise smart and perceptive writers to fall for things like Mussolini saying “I liked your book” (or, in Mark Twain’s case, all those ridiculous business ventures).
But what about the books, you say? Well, yes, I found a few books:
A reader’s guide to Remembrance of things past, by Terence Kilmartin
Medieval Russian Epics, Chronicles and Tales, by Serge A. Zenkovsky
The burn, by Vasilii Pavlovich Aksenov
The Naked Year, by Boris Pilniak
In the grip of strange thoughts: Russian poetry in a new era, ed. J. [James] Kates
Smolensk under Soviet rule, by Merle Fainsod
Stalin, a political biography, by Isaac Deutscher
Golos iz khora [A voice from the chorus], by Abram Terts
Mysli vrasplokh = Thought unaware, by Abram Terts
Arkhiv russkoi revoliutsii, ed. I.V. Gessen
You’ll note that in what was billed as a scanty Russian-language section I found three books I had to have right away (Tertz/Sinyavsky is one of my favorites, and the Gessen collection of documents includes a 120-page essay on the Provisional Government by V.D. Nabokov, the novelist’s father, who was a member of it); there were others I managed to leave for possible purchase during the sale next week (33% off starting Thursday the 18th!). And despite barely scratching the surface of the history section I found a couple of nice cheap paperback classics (Fainsod and Deutscher). And glancing at the start of the fiction section I saw a translation of the Aksenov novel I recently got in Russian (hey, sometimes a trot is helpful), and then it occurred to me they might have a translation of the obscure Pilnyak novel I’d just been reading about, and sure enough they did.
So if you’re anywhere near North Hatfield (north of Northampton, across the river [alas] from Hadley) and have an interest in books other than the latest best sellers, you owe it to yourself to drive up Route 5 to Depot Road—it’s right at the intersection. In fact, a fellow Troubadour fan (“world’s greatest used bookstore”) has actually put up a brief YouTube video showing what it looks like from the road, so you have no excuse. And for god’s sake, don’t just walk around for a few minutes and then leave without a word. Bob hates that. You don’t have to buy anything, but take the time to say “Hey, nice store!” Because it is.
Update. There’s a nice write-up by Drew Johnson, with pictures, at Maud Newton.
Update (2010). It turns out that the store is moving this fall (I took advantage of a 40% off moving sale)… to Hadley, where I live! Pro: Much easier access to store. Con: Will be spending more money on books.