Odyssey Bookshop celebrates 50th anniversary in South Hadley

Last modified: Thursday, November 14, 2013

SOUTH HADLEY — Having survived two fires and the introduction of the digital age, the Odyssey Bookshop is celebrating 50 years in business.

The independent bookstore at 9 College St., part of the Village Commons, will celebrate this milestone with a sale Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as children’s activities and an English-style tea party in honor of Romeo Grenier, who opened the Odyssey in 1963.

He died in 1997 at the age of 87. The store has been owned by his daughter, Joan Grenier, since 1991. She credits its success to the community support it has received, including that of volunteers who helped rebuild after the two fires.

“I’m looking forward to thanking our community,” said Grenier, who lives in Granby. “We really wouldn’t be here without the community and without the staff.”

Her father, who was both a pharmacist and an avid reader, first opened the bookstore in Glessman’s Pharmacy, which he owned across the street from Mount Holyoke College, according to the Odyssey website. For the first 10 years the Odyssey was in business, Grenier said, her father did not take a salary from the bookstore and continued to work also as a pharmacist and a bookstore owner.

The first fire was in December 1985. Joan Grenier was taking the Graduate Record Examination at the University of Massachusetts, and she remembers the announcement that someone was waiting for her outside the room. There, her friends told her that the store had burned. Her father, then 75, was on crutches at the time due to a recent knee operation.

The second fire was in May 1986, after the store had relocated to a small building nearby. “I remember my dad calling me in the middle of the night,” she said. Grenier said she told him to go back to sleep because she thought it was a bad dream.

Both fires were ruled arson. “It’s quite the story. It’s a little bit stranger than fiction,” Grenier said.

The Odyssey moved to its current location at the Village Commons in 1991. Jeffrey Labrecque, who has been chief operating officer of the Village Commons for 16 years, called a the bookstore a “major partner and asset in the success of the” retail shops.

“It’s a really tough and delicate business these days,” he said of independent bookstores. “I think the Odyssey’s success continues to be based upon Joan Grenier and her staff’s hard work.”

Grenier said that the store has had to keep up with changes in the book-selling market. She noted that in the early years of the business, there were no computers. Today, the Odyssey has a website, an active social media presence and an online store that sells over 3.5 million e-books.

Still, Grenier said she personally prefers the printed book because in her work, “I’m on screens a lot.”

On a recent evening in the store, Grenier worked with children’s department director Hannah Moushabeck to arrange scanned photos from the past 50 years into a slideshow that will be shown at a private celebration. Photos showed the Odyssey at its original location and the two relocations after the fires. Many images contained customers and staff from over the decades. At one point, they came across a photo from 1986 of a woman who remains a regular customer.

“She’s been visiting the Odyssey since before I was born,” remarked Moushabeck, 26.

Grenier said that there are a lot of customers who have similarly long histories with the store.

“We have customers that we have known their kids, and now I know their grandkids, and probably where’s a few great-grandkids as well,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to continuing that legacy.”

Photos also included famous guests who visited the Odyssey, including writer David Sedaris and “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman.

For its 45th anniversary, the Odyssey hosted a roundtable conversation with Stephen King and Richard Russo at Mount Holyoke, moderated by Joe Donahue from WAMC. The event raised over $18,000 for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Grenier said.

“We’re not just a retail store. We also do a ton of local events,” said Moushabeck of Easthampton, who will have worked at the Odyssey for a year next month.

She said being able to connect with the wide array of local authors in this area is among her favorite aspects of the job.

“I love to go to bookseller conferences because we have a ton of great authors living in this area,” she said. “We’re very lucky.”

Aaron Becker of Pelham, author of the children’s picture book “Journey” which had its launch party at the Odyssey in August, considers the Odyssey to be among the few bookstores “still doing it right.”

“They understand the importance of authors’ and creators’ work,” said Becker. “They’re very involved in the community and bringing the community into a physical store in this internet age.”

Grenier credits the Valley’s appreciation for community businesses as one of the reasons for the store’s long-running success. She said that many customers make a special effort to purchase books from her store instead of on Amazon.

“I think in the Pioneer Valley, people kind of get this,” she said. “We don’t want just strip malls and big-box stores.”

Anniversary festivities begin at 5:30 p.m. Friday with a “Treasure Hunter’s Scavenger Hunt” in the Village Commons for children ages 7 to 14, followed by a “Pirate Pajama Party and Storytime” for children ages 3 and older.

On Saturday, there will be giveaways every hour on the 50 minute mark as well as face painting in the children’s department from 1 to 3 p.m. and a cookbook table featuring the Northampton-based independent publisher Interlink, which is owned by Moushabeck’s father, Michel.

The hourly giveaways will continue on Sunday, and there will be a “Children’s Fancy Nancy Dress-up Tea Party and Storytime” at 2 p.m. The high tea in honor of Romeo Grenier for community members to share their memories of the Odyssey over cakes, scones and tea is at 4 p.m.

Romeo Grenier used to hold similar parties in the style of an English high tea, his daughter said.

Further information is available from the Odyssey at 534-7307, or online at www.odysseybks.com.


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