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In the Valley of the Literate

Email|Print| Text size + By Roger Mummert
November 16, 2007

DURING a recent visit to the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, my scribbled list of book events read like a busy dance card.

At Amherst Books, a local professor read from his new book on Chinese history at 5 p.m., while a children’s book author, also local, followed at 7:30, along with cider and pumpkin bread. Across the street at the Jones Library, a lecture on the graphic novel got under way at 7 p.m. At the same time, dealers were raising their bidding cards at an auction of rare and antiquarian books at the Hotel Northampton, 15 minutes away. Up the street at Smith College, several hundred students and community members gathered at 8 p.m. for a poetry reading, while the Broadside Bookshop sold books by the author at a table in the back of the hall.

All this on a Tuesday evening. The next day, a local paper listed 20 more author readings and book events coming up that week.

The Pioneer Valley is arguably the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating place in the nation. Popular leisure outings here include browsing a dusty used bookstore, taking in an art book show, attending a workshop in bookbinding or letterpress printing, or chatting with an author (while buying a signed first edition of his work) at a public reading.

“That’s what we do for fun,” said Bonnie Isman, director of the Jones Library. “It’s part of life here.” While the library has several author readings each month, the independent bookstores of the area are adding still more, she said.

“I’ve been selling books in Amherst on and off since 1981, and there are more author events than ever,” said Nat Herold, a co-owner of Amherst Books. Bookcases at the center of his store are on wheels so they can be pushed out of the way, allowing for up to 100 folding chairs to be brought in on author nights. In October alone, Amherst Books held 19 author events, while Food for Thought Books up the street held 10 of them.

At the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley (9 College Street; 413-534-7307; www.odysseybks.com), author readings began 20 years ago and have “grown tremendously” since then, said Joan Grenier, the shop’s owner.

However, readings are just some of the more than 125 events the store holds each year. The store has expanded several times since it opened in 1963 (and is moving into adjacent renovated quarters this month). For local residents, the Odyssey is more than a bookstore; it is a well-used gathering place, as well. Two fiction clubs, a crime book club and a Shakespeare discussion group meet here.

Amazon.com has changed the function of a bookstore,” Mr. Herold explained. “Bookstores have always been meeting places, and author events help to differentiate us.”

The success of author appearances around the valley — to use the local phrase for the region that straddles both sides of the Connecticut River as it meanders through western Massachusetts — is causing bookstores to look for larger venues. If a top-name author draws too large a crowd, the Odyssey will play host or co-sponsor an appearance across the street at Mount Holyoke College (like that of Jonathan Kozol on Nov. 2). Amherst Books, which sells books at author events at Amherst College, is also looking for bigger spaces to accommodate writers who draw big crowds. One venue they’re exploring is the Amherst Cinema Arts Center, a block away, which last month was host of a live rock ’n’ roll program of Emily Dickinson poetry called “Zero at the Bone.”

The valley is in the midst of a five-month festival call BookMarks: A Celebration of the Art of the Book. “Books to Blogs and Back,” which runs through Sunday, is the third major event in the festival, which began in September and runs through January. A series of lectures at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, and other events around the valley, explore the effect of new technology on books.

“BookMarks celebrates the valley’s rich literary pedigree going back to Emily Dickinson, and a plethora of writers live here today,” said Tony Maroulis, of Museums10 (www.museums10.org), a consortium of local museums that sponsors the festival.

Last month, BookMarks held a “Books Out Loud” weekend with 19 readings by authors, among them Richard Russo, Diane Ackerman and Michael Korda. The weekend was capped with a live performance of “Selected Shorts: a Celebration of the Short Story” with Isaiah Sheffer, visiting from Symphony Space on the Upper West Side. The event was held at the Academy of Music, an 1890 theater in Northampton.

There are many explanations for why the valley is so rich in bookstores and author readings, but two are paramount: many book lovers live in the valley, and so do an extraordinary number of writers.

“IN this town, if you lift a rock you find a writer,” said Ellen Doré Watson, director of the Smith College Poetry Center (413-585-4891; www.smith.edu/poetrycenter) in Northampton. “The quality of listening is what’s amazing,” Ms. Watson said of the 10 public readings that the center holds each year, which she said typically draw several hundred students and local residents. “People really come to listen.”

People in the valley also come to shop for books. While there is one national chain bookstore on Route 9 between Northampton and Amherst, independent bookstores prevail, and local authors are featured in them.

The Broadside Bookshop, which is holding eight author readings this fall, is one of the many independent bookstores in the historic downtown of Northampton. “We’ve only got one location, and we’re very connected to our community,” said Nancy Felton, a co-owner of the shop. The store features signed books by writers who live in the valley, and many books in its window bear the sticker “Local Author.”

Civic pride in writers extends to the Northampton town Web site (www.noho.com), which has an “artists & writers” page with links to more than two dozen authors (like Eric Carle and Augusten Burroughs) who make their home in the area. The Amherst town Web site (www.amherstma.gov) displays the municipal crest with a book and a plow, a reference to the scholarly and agricultural heritage of a town founded in 1759. The Amherst Books Web site has a section featuring current books by local authors: about 150 are listed.

“We’ve got to update that,” Mr. Herold said of a task that has become increasingly time consuming. “Authors keep moving into the area, and the writers we have here are very prolific.”

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