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.

Update (2023). The collection was merged with that of Grey Matter Books in 2014, and Bob died in 2019.


  1. I’ll have to cross the river to see this one.

  2. [sigh] North Hatfield, you say?..
    I saw a couple of fascinating books last week. One was a collection of documents about the dissidents movement in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev times — KGB reports, leaflets, etc. The second one was titled ‘Letters to the Power’. It was a collection of letters sent by Soviet people to the state institutions in 1925-1945. I had already left 1000 rubles in that bookstore, so I had to put them back to the shelves. Now I think, perhaps, I should go and buy them?

  3. aldiboronti says

    It sounds a wonderful place.
    The only bookstore of real worth in this locality closed some ten years ago. Run by an eccentric chap called Bill it was an Aladdin’s cave of heaped treasure, and I do mean heaped – the books were piled everywhere, spilling off the shelves on to the floor throughout a maze of small rooms. He dealt mostly in old works, from the 17th century through to the 20th, at prices that had to be seen to be believed.
    Most of the real gems in my library I owe to Bill. Take for instance a 1661 edition of Clement Walker’s History of the Independency which I snapped up for £30 in the 80s.
    Walker was thrown into the Tower by the Protector in 1648 after publication of the second part and died there a few years later. Isaac D’Israeli, in his Curiosities of Literature, says this of him:
    “This party coinage {sc. The Rump} has been ascribed to Clement Walker, their bitter antagonist; who, having sacrificed no inconsiderable fortune to the cause of what he considered constitutional liberty, was one of the violently ejected members of the Long Parliament, and perished in prison, a victim to honest unbending principles. His “History of Independency” is a rich legacy bequeathed to posterity, of all their great misdoings, and their petty villanies, and, above all, of their secret history: one likes to know of what blocks the idols of the people are sometimes carved out.
    Clement Walker notices “the votes and acts of this fag end; this RUMP of a parliament, with corrupt maggots in it.”1 This hideous, but descriptive image of “The Rump,” had, however, got forward before; for the collector of “the Rump Songs” tells us, “If you asked who named it Rump, know ’twas so styled in an honest sheet of prayer, called ‘The Bloody Rump,’ written before the trial of our late sovereign; but the word obtained not universal notice, till it flew from the mouth of Major-General Brown, at a public assembly in the days of Richard Cromwell.” Thus it happens that a stinging nickname has been frequently applied to render a faction eternally odious; and the chance expression of a wit, when adopted on some public occasion, circulates among a whole people. The present nickname originated in derision on the expulsion of the majority of the Long Parliament; by the usurping minority. It probably slept; for who would have stirred it through the Protectorate? and finally awakened at Richard’s restored, but fleeting “Rump,” to witness its own ridiculous extinction.”
    OED does indeed give Walker as its earliest cite for the term.
    Death was the only thing that could have taken Bill away from his bookstore and one day I came along to find it closed, an empty husk, all those wonderful books vanished into the maw of some dealer. I went home, raised a glass to absent friends, and prayed there were books in heaven.

  4. michael farris says

    “a collection of letters sent by Soviet people to the state institutions in 1925-1945”
    If I could read Russian I’d be on that like Oprah on a baked ham.

  5. Excellent. Is the place called Troubador Books because of the happy finds one might make there (troubador being Provençal for finder; cf. trouvère)?

  6. (Modulo spelling.)

  7. Robert De St. Loup says

    That Kilmartin book is terrific.

  8. How good you found Zenkovsky. We used it in the survey course (“Russia: From Empire to Federation”) I TAed for last fall. There do not seem to be any other English language anthologies of pre-Petrine Russian/East Slavic literature available, just like Cross is the only option in English for the Primary Chronicle. Or am I wrong?

  9. “Did you get a good price for it?”
    “No, I didn’t Askenov.”

  10. “Best in the valley”, you say? That’s saying something.
    Last June the Advocate ran a nice article on the Pioneer Valley bookstores. I make it up there once or twice a year, but, unfortunately, I usually bust the budget before I make it any further than Northampton. But I guess next time I’ll try to keep some money hidden in my sock for North Hatfield.
    (PS: The next Pittsfield ‘Friends’ sale is Nov. 1st. I guess I won’t be running into you there this time, either.)

  11. From their website, at this particular time:

    The ongoing deconstruction of Russell and East Street has made it challenging to get to us by conventional methods. Until further notice, we recommend arriving by helicopter if possible. Out landlord, Fred, has obligingly painted white cross hairs on the neighboring lawn to facilitate landing. If traveling by land, however, it is best to make an early left off of rt. 9 onto Whalley or Goffe, […]

  12. Oy. Yes, the deconstruction of Russell Street (Rte 9) is apparently a years-long process, and is creating all sorts of inconveniences. But I really should get back to the store while it’s still there…

Speak Your Mind