As Bookends in Florence celebrates its 25th year, Valley used bookstores remain strong

Last modified: Friday, October 02, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — In the age of e-readers and, used bookstores remain a strong segment of the Pioneer Valley economy. Among them is Bookends, which this week will mark its 25th year as a staple in Florence center.

The anniversary will be celebrated from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday with the store’s first sale in nearly 10 years — 25 percent off all used books. Refreshments will be available all day, and live musicians will include Tommy Twilite from noon to 1 p.m., jazz by Wes Brown and Mark Ricker from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. and accordionist Jim Desmond playing selections from “Amelie” and traditional Balkan music.

The shop was opened in 1990 at 93 Main St., not far from its current home at 80 Maple St., by Edward Shanahan. A lifelong book lover, Shanahan had worked as a reporter and editor for about 30 years at publications including the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Berkshire Eagle and Congressional Quarterly when he felt it was time for a change.

Shanahan said he loved all aspects of his second career, including a critical part of used-book selling — the buying of books.

He recalled going out on “house calls,” which is a common job for a book trader. That requires visiting people at home to pick through their library, or even sift through an entire lot of books they purchased.

“It fulfills one’s original enthusiasm for books,” said Shanahan, 79, who lives in Leeds. “It’s essential that you be aggressive in buying books.”

Nearly 10 years after opening Bookends, Shanahan had amassed around 30,000 books when he decided to move. With the help of employee Grey Angell and the Northampton High School football team, the store was packed up in cartons for the move to Maple Street.

“It was mayhem over here,” Shanahan recalled last week from a chair perched behind a lofty stack at the bookshop. “It was a major undertaking.”

At that time, Bookends had what Shanahan called a “lively Internet business” that continued during the move.

About 10 years ago Shanahan sold the business to Angell. Though Angell still sells some books online, he says he far prefers the social and intellectual venue of a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

“People come in and are open to conversations with strangers the way they might not be at a grocery store,” said Angell, who lives in Chesterfield. He said bookstores like his fall within that “third place” — not someone’s home or workplace, but somewhere that’s “not too private, not too public.”

Angell said the best parts of bookselling are helping people find exactly what they’re looking for — whether for a class reading list or to indulge a personal interest — and being there in that moment of serendipity when someone finds something they didn’t know they needed.

Angell said he made a few changes to the store after buying it. He closed for a month to perform some renovations and has now expanded into other used media.

As to the question of the e-reader’s place in a book lover’s heart, Angell said he’s not too worried. “I don’t ever call e-books ‘books,’ ” Angell said. “To me they’re files.”

Angell said he always has loved the physical nature of a bound book. Bookstores are repositories of objects with a physical design, he added. “They’ve lasted and they’re going to last.”

Angell said he believes the novelty of e-readers has faded, and they are not a threat to used bookstores.

“The e-reader is not going to be very helpful in terms of access to books out of print,” Shanahan said.

Angell added, “There’s millions and millions of books that have been printed, and only thousands and thousands are currently in print.”

And with that many books, one used bookstore can’t meet everyone’s needs. Valley residents have many options.

“The community of book people here, we’re not so much competitors,” Shanahan said. “There’s more of a collegial atmosphere.”

‘Critical mass’

Other Valley booksellers agree.

Sam Burton, who owns Grey Matter Books in Hadley, said several years he bought a “house full of books” in Connecticut. He called his colleague Angell, who was happy to buy around 300 titles from the lot, Burton said.

“I think the book business in general has always thrived on there being a critical mass of booksellers,” Burton added.

The bookish nature of the Valley helps, he said. “Relative to the population, there’s a good supply of books,” Burton said. “There’s so much history here.”

As an example, he recalled going into the basement of an area home to look though a book collection, including “very forward-thinking” anti-racist literature from the 1930s, black studies titles and books focused on African-American lives.

Susan Shilliday, who owns the Montague Bookmill, said she doesn’t know what people are talking about when they speak of youngsters who are losing interest in reading.

“Young people come in here getting excited about books, getting excited about old books,” she said. “I think it’s just part of the culture of the Valley — that it values books.”

She said area bookstores are indeed a community, one that’s been profiled in the New York Times for its ability to attract out-of-staters.

“We get a lot of people who come to this area who are doing book tours — I don’t mean authors — I mean people who are going from one bookstore to the other,” Shilliday said. “It’s a drawing point for the Valley that we still have a lot of strong bookstores here.”

Among the other used bookstores in the area are Gabriel Books, Raven Used Books and Old Book Store in Northampton; Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley; Amherst Books in Amherst; Heritage Books in Southampton; Whately Antiquarian Book Center in Whately; Pages in Conway; Federal Street Books, John Doe Jr. and Roundabout Books in Greenfield; and Boswell's Books, Nancy Dole and Shelburne Falls Booksellers in Shelburne Falls.

When she has a customer looking for a specific title that she does not have, Shilliday said she will call a local colleague, something that Angell also does.

“Used books are different than other types of merchandise,” Angell said. “Every store has their unique selection.”

Since taking over the store from Shanahan, Angell said he has expanded Bookends’ offerings. He started selling used CDs, then began offering DVD rentals for $1.99 a week after Florence Video closed several years ago. And recently he started selling vinyl records after repeated requests from customers.

Despite those expansions, Angell said, “The bookstore has just as many books as it used to have.”

That number now stands at about 35,000 titles that are constantly changing, thanks to customers buying and selling books on a daily basis, Angell said.

Last Wednesday, a customer brought a laundry basket full of books to trade in. For customers who want to sell books for credit, rather than cash, Angell offers a 50 percent premium.

Angell said over time he notices what books have sold and which ones haven’t, to help him decide which books to buy. Literature has always been a focus at Bookends, and Angell said he has a significant collection of foreign language books, mostly Romance languages, German and the occasional Polish one.

And some books are not likely to sell quickly. “Here’s an example of something that’s a little too obscure,” he said, holding up a book bound in blue and titled “Bertrand Russell translated into Chinese.”

For more information, call Bookends at 585-8667.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at


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