BUSINESS MONDAY: Local bookstores survive and thrive in time of pandemic –

Bookstores in the Berkshires build community, and vice versa.
Don’t read too much into the old cliche—despite the internet, the pandemic, and other challenges, Berkshire bookstores are creating community and curating selections for readers of all types.
Since it opened in North Adams at the end of June, the Bear & Bee Bookshop on Holden Street has already begun hosting a monthly book club, a writer’s group, and a queer circle. “We saw right away the response from the community,” said Jennifer Stevens, who owns the bookshop with her partner Riley Howard. “You could see there was a space we were filling.”
Stevens and Howard moved to the area after living in Bangladesh, where Stevens, an international public health and midwifery specialist, was working for the UN. Stevens had always dreamed of owning a bookstore, and while they didn’t specifically move to the area to start one, space was available and one thing led to another.
The Bear & Bee sells both new and used books, and started their work from the ground up, building bookshelves, arranging their storefront, and amassing stock (some of the used books are from their own collections). It was important to them to curate a space that sparked people’s imagination and led them to new literary discoveries, something that’s hard to recreate online. “What we wanted was a brick-and-mortar community space,” said Stevens. “If you walk into a bookstore, you want something to capture you. Our job is to curate something that pulls you in in an interesting way.”
In Great Barrington, The Bookloft is drawing new customers since its move to a new building on State Road. “It’s helped a lot in terms of visibility,” said Pamela Pescosolido, who purchased the business from Eric Wilska in 2016.
The Bookloft has been open for customers, following a pandemic-related closure, since June 2020. Pescosolido said she had a great holiday season and is beginning to hold events at the shop again, including a recent meet-and-greet with Keith Bendis, who illustrated the bestselling children’s book “Calvin Can’t Fly.”
Though owning a brick-and-mortar bookstore has its challenges, Pescosolido said she has an excellent staff offering “a personal, hands-on approach” and that the area, with plenty of tourism and interest from residents, is a good environment for a shop like hers to thrive. “I don’t know that I would love owning a bookstore so much if I were in Ohio,” she said. “For me, it’s the books themselves, and the area I find myself in.”
Meanwhile, Eric Wilska, who sold The Bookloft to Pescosolido, is now busy running Shaker Mill Books in West Stockbridge, including his adjacent book barn which is open for the summer months.  Besides selling new books, Shaker Mill offers a large, but choice, selection of rare, used, and out-of-print books, including a great collection of books about the Berkshires.
“We are a COVID success story,” said Wilska. “We did better during COVID than during the year before. Internet sales were up, and also we are part of the West Stockbridge renaissance.” According to Wilska, West Stockbridge is attracting a lot of people. No. Six Depot started it all, and now TurnPark Art Space has found its footing. West Stockbridge has become a destination, and visitors stop into the bookstore while they’re here.
Chapter Two Books on Spring Street in Williamstown has been open since 2018 and benefits the Friends of the David and Joyce Milne Library. It sells lightly used books curated by volunteers in the library’s donations center, and relies on around 75-80 volunteers to do everything from staffing the shop to accounting to selecting which books make it to Spring Street.
Curating those book selections is a major consideration. “I didn’t realize how important that was going to be—as well as finding and being aware of people in the community who had those skills, and getting them involved,” said Michael Sussman, who is on the Friends board and helps with tech and finance at the shop. “Having books on the shelves people are going to be looking for has become a large component of our success.”
Before COVID, Chapter Two was open seven days a week, but the pandemic allowed the Friends to evaluate that model and the amount of volunteer work it took to keep the store open all week. “It created a non-guilt way to realize we needed to restructure our hours and days,” said Sussman.
Ginny Sheldon, the Friends board president and donation center coordinator, said the shop has been extremely profitable. Before it was open, the Friends would coordinate an annual mega-sale, which raised around $25,000 to benefit the library, with many books left over at the end of the weekend. “We’re well beyond that—and we’re saving so many more books,” she said. In terms of current sales, “we’re pretty much equaling pre-COVID for the bookstore,” she said.
Although Matt Tannenbaum has owned The Bookstore in Lenox since 1976, he never knew how much the store meant to the community until COVID caused him to shut it down. And that shutdown threatened to become permanent. “We didn’t have the reserves to stay open just for curbside sales,” he said. To save his business, Tannenbaum launched a GoFundMe fundraising drive, not really expecting to meet his goal of $60,000. Within three weeks, he had raised more than double that from some 1,100 donors. “I was even getting donations from people in Brooklyn who had grown up in Lenox and had bought their books here as children. That’s when I realized how connected people can be to their local bookstore.”
The Bookstore cautiously stayed closed until mid-June 2020. The closure and the GoFundMe money gave Tannenbaum a chance to re-organize his store, install a new carpet after 34 years, go through his inventory, and restock with the books he thought people would want during the pandemic. “I told people we were clearing the shelves so every book would have a happy ending,” quipped Tannenbaum, “but the reality is that I was relying on everything I had learned over 45 years about what my customers might want during these strange times.” The secret to success in the book business, according to Tannenbaum, is to understand what your community wants and needs. “We’re not here just to provide you with the big new book,” he said, “but to anticipate what might interest you even before you know it yourself.”
Business is now steady, and people are coming into the store like before. But The Bookstore has not yet resumed its in-store readings. Instead, Tannenbaum produced an outdoor poetry reading at Lilac Park in Lenox during the summer and has provided books for Lenox Library events. In the meantime, Tannenbaum is looking forward to the The Berkshire International Film Festival in September and its debut of “Hello, Bookstore,” a full-length documentary by Adam Zax that tells the story of how the community rallied to save The Bookstore in its hour of need.
Now, really, can an online bookseller command that kind of love?
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