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Longtime Amherst religious bookstore likely closing

Laos Interfaith Book Store at 233 North Pleasant St. in Amherst may be closing  after 40 years.

Laos Interfaith Book Store at 233 North Pleasant St. in Amherst may be closing after 40 years. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

LAOS, at the Amherst Carriage Shops downtown, is holding a going-out-of-business sale with marked-down prices on its in-house stock, even though those running the enterprise are holding out hope that a local religious community will rally and give it new life.

“I think people will miss having it here,” said Martha Waldron, the manager for the religious book center since the 1970s.

Still, she said, she knows LAOS is facing issues that have forced the closing of other bookstores in town, such as Jeffery Amherst Bookstore and Valley Books. Waldron said the rent on its second-floor space has been kept low by Jerald Gates, who owns the property, but he informed them the rent will increase in July to a point forcing LAOS out.

Late last week, the LAOS board members sent out a formal appeal to churches and organizations seeking interest in housing what has become an all-volunteer organization that depends largely on support from churches and religious groups. “A lot of churches have been good customers,” Waldron said.

The letter seeks a church, in part, to assume “responsibility for continuation of the bookstore and its unique and important ministry and mission.”

Jeff Waldron, Martha Waldron’s son, who works as a clerk at the store, said this would make sense as a rent-free option. “As a business model, you want to be near a church with easy access,” Waldron said.

The Rev. Thomas Fisher, a pastor emeritus at First Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ohio, who has served as president of the LAOS board, agrees. “The ideal solution would be to find a new home and new management,” he said.

Fisher and his wife, Clara Joe, moved to Amherst in 1999, with the bookstore an aspect of the community that drew them to town.

“It’s part of the coming together of the world,” Fisher said. “This has had a rich history.”

Started as study group

LAOS, which stands for Lay Academy for Oecumenical Studies, began life in 1972, about a decade after David Shepherd King, a chaplain at Amherst College and the associate pastor at First Congregational Church, started an early ecumenical study group that brought together people of various religious backgrounds. The group fostered religious dialogue and cooperation among denominations and encouraged parishes to involve lay people in the ministry.

Until 2002, LAOS used space in the parish house at Grace Episcopal Church on Spring Street. Waldron said this was a visible location accessible to foot traffic, including many guests at the Lord Jeffery Inn, with one of the most famous customers being South African Episcopal Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But the church eventually needed the space for classrooms, and for three years LAOS was housed at Immanuel Lutheran Church before moving to the second floor of the Carriage Shops. It occupies three units, with space for customers to browse the shelves, as well as to hold functions such as readings, meditations and art exhibits.

The more than 1,000 books for sale feature all denominations, Christian, Jewish Muslim, Buddhist, even religions to indigenous American Indian tribes and Taoism and Confuciansim. There are books more broadly focused on topics such as peace, social justice and environmental causes. Bibles, liturgies, hymnals and sacred texts are also available.

The books include several written and signed by environmentalist Bill McKibben, following an event last year at Amherst College, and by local authors such as Ronald Story, who wrote a biography of Jonathan Edwards.

Categories inside the shop include aging, recovery and healing and gender and sexuality, all from a religious perspective.

“We have lots of books on how to deal with grief, how to deal with divorce, how to deal with relationships, all sorts of traumas that are faced,” Jeff Waldron said.

Children’s books are written with a certain purpose.

“Most of the children’s books are books that say something,” Clara Joe Fisher said.

The store also sells greeting cards for any religious occasion. “I don’t know any other store in town that has the cards we have,” Martha Waldron said.

Other items for sale include both Roman Catholic and Anglican rosary beads, custom-made by a local craftswoman, crosses handmade in La Palma, Calif., statuettes, mugs, candles, compact discs and audio cassettes.

Sad to go

Martha Waldron has been responsible for buying the books. Though she acknowledges the growing challenges in the day of the Nooks and Kindles and online information and books sales opportunities, she says they don’t replace the shopping experience.

“People can come up and touch and see and feel the book. That’s very different from buying books online,” she said.

Others who volunteer include Peter Ward, Elizabeth Carlisle, Richard Sinkowski and Jim Clark. The store is staffed limited hours, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with 40 percent off in-stock books and 25 percent off cards and music until the store closes.

Thomas Fisher said it will be sad if this is the final month. “This has been a venerable institution,” he said.

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