No more Food for Thought

Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014
They gave it their best shot. Sadly, they came up short. Members of the Food for Thought Books Collective cut costs, reduced space, diversified offerings, imposed event fees and sought help from financial experts, lawyers and supporters.

But despite waves of love from the community — including $40,000 in donations raised in just a few months — the collective closed the downtown Amherst store for good last week. A 37-year run of offering books on progressive and social justice causes and providing community space to groups marginalized because of their race, sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity is over.

The closure leaves a void that will be hard to fill.

Max Page, a UMass professor who said the shop helped foster his political leanings and intellectual curiosity when he was a teen, lamented its passing. “Although I grew up in a liberal household, I hadn’t encountered the people I saw on those bookshelves,” he told reporter Scott Merzbach.

Food for Thought is the latest in a long line of independent book stores in Amherst to lose the battle against online booksellers and digital books. Jeffery Amherst Books, Goliard Books and Valley Books have all given up in recent years. And The Good Faith Bookstore, a religious bookshop formerly known as LAOS, has downsized, leaving Amherst Books on Main Street as the last full-time book seller in town.

Though many express regret over the demise of the independents, price and convenience win in the marketplace, a point proven time and again despite the value of personal service and community consciousness.

In the case of Food for Thought, there were many people willing to go beyond lip service and open their wallets to prop up the struggling enterprise. Collective members began a public appeal for help last summer, saying they were drowning in debt.

Volunteers, whom they had long counted on, redoubled their commitment. Landlord Barry Roberts lowered the rent and then supported the collective’s need to give up half the space and run a slimmer operation. Donations poured in at the end of 2013, allowing store managers to start the year with optimism.

But book sales just kept getting worse, despite price cuts to rival online discounts. Attempts to get a line of credit to manage and consolidate debts failed and the monetary gifts were used to pay bills and make payroll, until they couldn’t do that anymore. At the end, volunteers were heading off to other summertime endeavors and the two part-time employees could no longer work for free. Legal and financial advisers said it was time to go.

Maybe the collective’s leaders should have pulled the plug sooner, before amassing $40,000 from loyal supporters. Those who gave likely thought their money would buy more than a few months. But it’s hard to give up on a long-time institution that began with idealism in 1976 and, for so many years, provided alternatives coveted here.

There is already talk of a new downtown cafe located nearby providing space for the types of events hosted by Food for Thought, such as open mics, poetry readings and art exhibits. But the shop will be hard to replace.

Mitch Gaslin, who once served as a co-manager at the collective and is the business manager at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, knows how hard it is to swim upstream. “It’s a sad thing,” he said, “and really unfortunate for the town.” We agree.