In the spring of 2020, two men a generation apart sat quietly in an empty bookstore, telling stories. Matt Tannenbaum sat behind the desk where he has run the Bookstore in Lenox for more than 40 years. At any other time he would have been looking out the plate glass window and welcoming people by name as they come through the door, recommending a book, laughing, asking after their children.
That day, the two of them were alone. A Los Angeles filmmaker, Adam Zax, came to the shop to sit with him as people came up to gather books set outside in brown paper bags and exchange information through the closed glass door.
This week the Berkshire International Film Festival will screen Zax’ new feature film about Tannenbaum and his family and the community he has been “serving since last Tuesday” for generations — the community that has carried the Bookstore through the pandemic.
As an independent bookshop, it has already proved durable and deeply rooted. Tannenbaum remembers, in the weeks just before he first took over this desk, coming in and asking the former owner, David Silverstein, for some time to look at the shelves. Tannenbaum was carrying a stack of 3×5 cards to keep track of titles — this was 1976, long before he started keeping inventory on a computer.
As he looked through children’s books, he watched Silverstein sitting at the desk and talking with a friend who had walked in. A woman came up with a book, and Silverstein wrote down the title on a legal pad and made change for her, all the while keeping his conversation gently moving.
“And I’m thinking, how am I going to do that?” Tannenbaum said. “He’s so comfortable, and I’ve never owned anything before — I’ve been a bookseller in a warehouse, a buyer, a stocker … It took me years to realize that sitting there with a pad and having that conversation was his inventory. He had body memory.”
Tannenbaum knows how that memory feels now. When he goes to Manhattan on a buying trip, he said, when he looks at pallets and boxes stacked with books, he will remember the specific books he has held in his hands. He remembers the stories people have read and asked about and the books he has handed to them.
Filmmaker Adam Zax knows the family and the Bookstore well, Tannenbaum said. He has wandered through the shop, listening to Tannenbaum talk with visitors as they come in, watching him hand someone a book or a joke or a casual recommendation. He has heard Tannenbaum tell stories from his view at the center of town, and in the world of books in New York City before that. So he asked to film them.
Zax was living in Los Angeles and working on other film projects, Tannenbaum said, and he planned to come east four times for this one, in four seasons. They began filming in fall of 2019, and again in December, in time to see the snow from the early-season storm. And then in March 2020 he and his wife came to the Berkshires, because is originally from here, and they stayed in the pandemic.
“Adam filmed all through the the lockdown,” Tannenbaum said.
He filmed in the spring of 2020, as the Bookstore closed down, like every other local shop, and then navigated re-opening for curbside pickup. Tannenbaum’s first grandchild, Siena, was born that spring.
And in the summer of 2020, with bills coming due and revenue sharply down, Zax filmed on as Tannenbaum ran a GoFundMe to save the Bookstore, and the community rallied around him. They raised $60,000 the day the campaign went live — on a Tuesday, in honor of the store’s motto: Tannenbaum has been serving the community since last Tuesday since he bought the store on a Tuesday, on April 1, 1976. The Gofundme went on to raise more than $100,000 in all.
By the time the Bookstore lifted masks and reopened for walk-in visitors in summer 2021, Zax was finishing Hello, Bookstore, and it had become one of two local films in BIFF this year, along with Speak What We Feel, Kevin G. Coleman and Patrick J. Toole’s film following the fall festival of plays at Shakespeare & Company.
Books in a pandemic
Now that the shop has re-opened for walk-in visitors (masked and carefully circumspect), Tannenbaum will look out from his desk by the door at the life in the street and greet people as they come in.
He has missed these interactions in the pandemic, he said. Running the store through curbside pickup, without people coming in to browse, has been a challenge, and not only for the interruptions in revenue and ordering — he has lost a year of conversations.
Usually they are a constant. Sitting in the same wooden chair, fielding questions and trading jokes from several directions at once, he is hearing from readers as they walked in. They are telling him what they were looking for and what they were excited about.
“That’s where the originality of the store comes in,” he said.
As he prepared to re-open to visitors this summer, he has been rebuilding, filling in his tables of new titles with some older books he loves and his readers have loved. For a few months he has run a popup next door for secondhand books in a storefront next door.
He looked back to the Bookstore’s first years and the unpredictable challenges he faced then, as he has in these last years. And he remembered moment ten years ago. A man walked into the shop with a young girl. He knelt down by her and put an arm around her and said “see that man you’re about to buy a book from? He’s the man I used to buy books from when I was a boy.”
“It took 30 years,” Tannenbaum said, “but I became the person I wanted to be.”
He pulls a J.D. Salinger story off the wall, looking for a passage where Salinger is talking directly to his readers.
“He’s saying ‘I know who you are,’” Tannenbaum said. “And I know who these people are out here and what they hunger for in a book, because I hunger for it too.”