Life & Culture

Meet the ‘Jewish American hero’ whose bookstore is improving the world

The story is the focus of a warm and quirky documentary released this week


Selling books is more than just a job for Matt Tannenbaum. He lives and breathes literature.

It has helped to shape him and give his life direction, and he has been sharing his passion for it with different generations of local townsfolk in his small town in America for over 40 years. And now, thanks to A. B. Zax’s charming documentary Hello, Bookstore, he is sharing it with us.

Hailed as a “Jewish American hero” by The Forward, Tannenbaum is a warm, generous presence in the film. The store is effectively an extension of his personality, somewhere that feels like it exists outside time.

Antiquarian books rub covers with contemporary books, making it a place for discovery.

People go there to browse the shelves and lovingly curated table-top displays, to read, to chill, to drink wine at the small bar opened in memory of Tannenbaum’s late friend Jan Wiener, the Jewish Czech writer, and to meet the proprietor, who is never short of an anecdote or book recommendation.

Zax told him, “What you do is you make a poem out of coming to work every day. What you do is just different because you tell a story.”

“I like to say that I tell a story every time I sell a book,” Tannenbaum tells me over Zoom, from what appears to be his back office at The Bookstore, in Lenox, Massachusetts. “If you’re lucky, you get a story. If you’re unlucky, you get a joke. And the jokes are really, really bad.”

He enjoys puns and jots punchlines down in a notebook for reference. “So the whole thing is just a performance,” he says. “[And the shop is] almost like a performance space.”

He did some actual acting in the past, and says he had his eyes opened by a director while rehearsing the part of the French king in Henry V, who said, “He’s the king. You’ve got to give him status.”

Tannenbaum realised then that in “drama or comedy or anything”, there’s always “somebody getting status and somebody giving status. Once I understood that, that was a revelation to me.”

He adds: “That’s what happens here at the store every day: I get the status because people walk in and they see me. But I give it back to them because they’re the customer. So it’s not just like coming in to buy a box of Band-Aids.”

He has run the business more with his heart than his head, and when Covid struck, he had little financial wriggle room.

In Hello, Bookstore, he carries on trading during the pandemic but does not let customers inside the store.

He adds: “My older daughter was pregnant and had a new baby that came just at the beginning of the pandemic. There were no vaccinations and so I was very wary of any contact. I was heavily masked and heavily sanitised all the time.”

Although he was kept busy taking orders over the phone, finding books for customers, and writing down credit card numbers shouted through the glass front door, by the summer of 2020 his weekly takings were what he would normally make on one good day. Facing ruin, Tannenbaum set up a GoFundMe campaign. The community rallied and it reached its target in 23 hours, saving the business.

“A guy around the corner told me that some people were jealous that I had gotten so much attention and gotten that money when everybody was struggling,” confides Tannenbaum.

“But what was I going to do?”

They say you get back what you give, and I tell him that as I watched his genial interactions with customers in the documentary, and saw what The Bookstore meant to people, the phrase tikkun olam came to mind. He smiles.

“That says it perfectly. I’m not going out and marching. I am not boycotting. I am doing tikkan olum my way.

"If you come in looking for a book, whether you’re an eight-year-old boy or an 87-year-old woman, I’m going to give you a book that I know, that I’ve learned about, that I respect and trust, and I want to give to you so you can feel good about yourself in your world.”

This is what books, specifically fiction, did for him. As a child, he kept things to himself, and would not speak up even when he knew from experience that something was not true.

“I kept a lot of stuff to myself and I found out the stuff that I was missing in books. I learned the truth from fiction. They filled in my sense of who I was. Not that I was looking. I was a very dull kid. I was not curious.”

He still isn’t, he admits. When he developed bladder cancer (he is clear now), eight years ago, a customer was concerned that he was not fighting the disease. “But I knew that cancer was not something I was going to fight,” he says.

“I was doing what I needed to do, medically wise, but I’m not curious. I’m not a fighter. I’m just an old bookseller.”

While The Bookstore is in the Berkshires, Tannenbaum was born around 140 miles away in Manhattan, and grew up in Mount Vernon, “a nice suburb of New York City”.

His father, who died when Tannenbaum was 12, was a Polish immigrant who did window washing (“a lot of the Polish immigrants had window- washing companies”), and his mother was a homemaker.

He is no longer observant, but being Jewish is “a deep part” of his life.

“When I was a kid, Judaism was my social life,” he says. He belonged to a conservative synagogue and was the head of the youth group. “I had a friend and we would play football on Saturday afternoon and then we’d come home and read the parshah. I loved Havdalah.

"When my dad died, I went to synagogue every day.

“My older brother doesn’t remember me going with him but my memory is of the old guys drinking schnapps at 7.30 in the morning. So I know I was there.”

Tannenbaum didn’t venture into the city much — “Again, I was a dull kid” - and in High School stuck with the same social group. “I was not an athlete. I didn’t date. I was shy and I was skinny. So it was a place where I felt comfortable, and I enjoyed it.”

In college, he majored in government, and was heading drone-like towards becoming a teacher or a lawyer.

He took an English class in freshman year and fell in love with Dostoevsky, which could have been a turning point. “But I wasn’t bright enough to say, ‘Oh, I like this. Maybe I should change my major.’ I just kept going.”

One day, in an effort to “run away from a broken heart”, he joined the track team. The coach told him he ran too slow, so, he laughs, “I joined the student newspaper to write an exposé of the lousy track coach. That was basically where I was at: a very callow sophomore in college.”

Such was his love for journalism that he stopped going to classes and “flunked out”. It was 1968, he was 22, the Vietnam War was on, and without enough credits to graduate, he lost his deferment.

“I didn’t want to go to the war. I didn’t want to go to Canada. I didn’t want to go underground.

!I was not a conscientious objector. I spent the summer of 1968 reading Jean- Paul Sartre’s Roads to Freedom, a trilogy about a guy named Mathieu Delarue, who doesn’t know what to do in the summer of 1938, and it was just so perfect. I just waited and waited and then I got drafted. My mum said, ‘Join the Navy, it’s safer. You won’t get shot the first day that they put a uniform on you because you’re such a klutz.’”

Tannenbaum followed her advice, but six months into a four- year contract behind a desk at the Navy Yard in Washington, he wanted out, and decided to pretend that he was “crazy”.

Flicking through a psychology book, he stumbled upon a description of battle fatigue, and despite never having seen action himself, used it to convince a navy psychiatrist, who could not have read Catch 22, that he was unfit for service.

“The weekend that I went Awol as part of my plan to show them how crazy I was, I met a woman who told me, ‘If you like Henry Miller,’ I was reading Henry Miller at the time, ‘you should read Lawrence Durrell.’ Lawrence Durrell was a friend of Miller’s and so was Anais Nin, and the only place you could get all three of those authors was at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City, which I had never heard of.”

For years he had “no idea what my passion was going to be”. The sights and smells inside the Gotham Book Mart changed that, and set him on the path that would eventually lead to him becoming the new owner of The Bookstore in 1976. And starting to change the world, one book at a time.

‘Hello Bookstore’ is out now

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