Robert Willig, RIP.

Right after my wife and I moved to this neck of the woods, I made the rounds of the local bookstores, and my hands-down favorite was Troubadour Books, then in North Hatfield, just across the river; I wrote about my first visit back in 2007, featuring its generous and knowledgeable owner, Bob Willig. A few years ago I posted that Sam Burton of Grey Matter Books would be running the store (now in Hadley), since “Willig is blind and has been in bad health.” And this morning I was saddened to read his obituary in the local paper:

Bob was an expert on football, baseball, basketball, jazz, blues, barbeque, classic Jewish humor, Medieval philosophy, and the Beats. He was also a harmonica virtuoso, bibliophile, gourmet, bon vivant, raconteur, political radical, anarchist, world traveler, and even once studied to be a clown. […] He attended New York University, the University of Oregon and graduated from George Washington University with a degree in Comparative Religion and a minor in cinematography.

When Bob opened his bookstore, Troubadour Books (for Scholars and Holy Fools) in 1995 in North Hatfield, Massachusetts he built a collection that attracted scholars and buyers from California to England. He was famous for his book sales and always extended generous discounts to any who asked, with maybe a shot of Maker’s Mark bourbon from below the counter, just for good measure. […]

From his voracious reading and book collecting he built up a huge personal library reflecting his many interests from Dante to Ginsberg and from Dario Argento to Alfred Hitchcock. When his groaning shelves could hold no more it was time to open his own bookshop and he used his collection as the basis for his legendary bookshop, Troubadour Books.

Troubadour was more of an open house or salon than a typical store. Bob and Toni were always ready to sit and talk and share stories. Their friends were always dropping by. How they managed to run such a neat and tidy bookshop that was bursting at the seams at the same time was a wonder. They made it look easy, as if they were born to this life. When Bob began to go blind in 2012 Sam Burton purchased and merged Troubadour with his shop, Grey Matter, in Hadley, MA. His shop is still open and thriving and is a worthy successor to Bob’s legacy.

I personally wouldn’t have called it “neat and tidy,” but it was wonderful, and of all the bookstore owners I’ve known he may have been the very best. Alevasholem.


  1. a degree in Comparative Religion and a minor in cinematography

    His only options were clown or bookstore.

  2. Gregory Lewis says

    I just came upon this, and am saddened to read. I searched for “Robert Willig, book seller” because that’s on a Troubador Books book mark in a book I just now picked off my bookshelf. I was what Robert called a “holy fool”, and raided his small ramshackle bookstore in the early 2000s. I brought my daughter there once, so she would know what kinds of things I liked to do. It was one of my favorite book stores (there were so many antiquarian used book stores in the Happy Valley in those years), but Robert was my favorite book store owner/manager. I was on his mailing list, and occasionally I would get postcards announcing a sale. The postcards themselves were unusual, with random sayings like, “The leopard triangulates (something something something, I can’t remember).” From the outside, Troubador Books looked like a rundown shack. Inside, the walls were literally held up by a pillar of stacked Oxford English Dictionaries. I mostly patronized the section in one corner that was religion and spiritual. I found some really rare books, like a Doctoral Dissertation by Elaine Pagels, or books on magic, Theosophy books by Helena Blavatsky, Mishna in Hebrew, books on Buddhism, witchcraft, Aleister Crowley, many books on Gnosticism (“Gnosis on the Silk Road”), etc., etc. Behind the counter Robert kept beat era collectibles, of which I came home with a few, such as William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and Aldous Huxley.

  3. Thanks very much for that comment; I wish I’d thought to get on his mailing list. What an amazing man.

  4. George Kaplan says

    Bob was my dear friend, and writing this now presents all kinds of challenges; first among them, where to start… With the loss of his virginity in his early teens to his parents’ black maid? Sharing a bottle of Four Roses with the bluesman who saved his life in the men’s room of Big Duke’s Flamingo Lounge? His time wandering Appalachia as Bo-Willy the Clown? Or the time he injured his foot hitchhiking to the University of Chicago only to have it washed and bound up by strangers? Or his hour long barroom conversation about music with an old man named Chester he realized after the fact was indeed Howlin’ Wolf? Or his epic months-long road trip (with his pal, Lonny) through the South on a quest for The Perfect Barbeque? Oh, there are so many places one can start. ( And all true.)

    But, the bookstore… That amazing bookstore… I suppose that’s as good a start as any. Bob started his own book business, Troubadour Books, in an old gas station on US-5 in North Hatfield, Massachusetts. He jammed the place full of books–books of all kinds–“for scholars and holy fools” the sign said. But Troubadour Books was a monument to Bob’s extraordinary tastes and his bottomless education. The place was legendary and attracted people like poets John Hollander, James Tate, Bernadette Meyer, and Robert Creeley (to name a few), and artists like Leonard Baskin, Barry Moser, and Arnold Skolnick (the artist responsible for the famous catbird poster for Woodstock) and not forgetting Commander Cody, and Thurston Moore… ah, the list goes on and on. And, of course, Troubadour’s devoted booklovers and book-hungry dealers the world over. Not that the store was ever about the books–it wasn’t. It was an exercise in placemaking, a salon for the thinkers, drinkers, and jovial reprobates whose peculiar fascination with life sought deeper roots in the thoughts and ideas of others, living and dead. The books were merely refence tools for, or extensions of, endless cycles of brilliant talk. And at the center of it all was Bob, quietly espousing the virtues of early Christian philosophy or the boundlessness of the transfinite. And when Bob’s eyesight began failing (a tragic consequence of his diabetes) and he moved his store to another location, his salon/bookstore remained the shining star of the Pioneer Valley’s waning, though no less awesome, community of bookshops. Even when his blindness sidelined him in the actual business, his bookstore lived on–gathered under the wing of another, less knowledgeable, less personable dealer. But when Bob’s visits to the shop grew rarer, things changed. Mere books could not sustain his clientele through his absence. And, finally, Troubadour Books petered out.

    Now news comes of Bob’s death. His struggles with mental illness and poor health were not well-kept secrets. And a life of various excesses had taken its toll. But somehow one liked to think Bob was out there, talking brilliantly and brilliantly talking. And maybe he is still. With Bob, you never quite knew–except that there was always another chapter.

    Rest in peace, old friend. You are loved.

  5. I’m very glad I made this post so people could leave heartfelt comments like that. I wish I’d spent more time in his store and gotten to know him better. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and I hope more old friends will drop by and commemorate him.

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