One Wednesday morning in May, I found myself standing on the sidewalk along Madeira Way at Madeira Beach. Gathered in front of an unassuming storefront, a small contingent of over-excited junkies – OK, no this kind of junkie. Members of this congregation shared the kind of addiction that Nicholas A. Basbanes wrote about in the 1995 book “A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.” Everyone gathered that morning felt the same undeniable enchantment for books. We had all been struck by what Benjamin Thomas, grandson of the founder of the American Antiquarian Society, called “the sweetest of infirmities, bibliomania”.
The opportunity that brought this small crowd together was bittersweet: DoraLynn Books was bankrupt. Bookstore owner Sean Donnelly announced that after 12 years in Madeira Beach, the store will close at the end of May. Over the past few weeks, books — priced at $1 each — have been flying off the shelves. I know this because, over a three-week period, I must have made at least a dozen visits to the store. I combed the shelves, filling bags and boxes full of classic science fiction paperbacks, first-edition hardcovers, and reference books. I salvaged the collections of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, a few old pulp magazines, and a series of “Studies in the Fantastic”, an academic journal devoted to literary fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales bizarre and magical realism published by the University of Tampa Press. Donnelly previously served on the editorial board.
Closing DoraLynn Books wasn’t mandatory, but it was probably a wise move. Eventually, the bookstore would likely have been forced to relocate as new owners developed the desirable plot of land on which the aging shopping street sits. Donnelly’s isn’t the first street business to close or relocate. But Donnelly estimated that finding a new storefront would double his rent. That, plus the cost of moving all of his inventory, probably helped him come to his conclusion. Although he will no doubt miss his clients, Donnelly told me he is ready for the next chapter of his life.
As bibliophiles know, bookstores come and go.
The new film “Hello, Bookstore” chronicles an independent bookstore that has found itself struggling to survive during the pandemic. The film was shown in a handful of select theaters before premiering on June 28 on demand on Amazon, Apple TV, Vudu and other services. Directed by AB Zax, the documentary revolves around Matt Tannenbaum, owner of The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts.
In the film, Tannenbaum admits that his store is something of a hybrid, selling new books alongside used books. He further admits that he has a room full of books that never made it to the shelves and that he bought niche books knowing that the likelihood of associating them with the ideal customer is low. The chance to make that connection, however, is clearly something he can’t resist: he measures success not in dollars but in the happiness it brings when a customer finds the right book.
To his credit, Tannenbaum enjoys doing what he does for a living. An aging hippie starring in his own Frank Capra parable of selflessness and community, he is shown as affable and entertaining, with a devilish wit and keen intelligence, and just enough distraction to underline his vulnerability in terms of management. of business.
“Hello, Bookstore” flows like a monologue from scene to scene, jumping sharply from the pre-COVID days of fall 2019 to the height of the pandemic in spring and summer 2020. Lacking narration, the viewer is left to untangle the sometimes incoherent jumble of personal reflections, customer transactions and stories told. Whether Tannenbaum shares a revealing anecdote with a client or answers inaudible interview questions, his tone is surprisingly captivating. The documentary shows that his business is not just about selling books to strangers. The bookstore is a community and connects with people.
The pandemic has inhibited Tannenbaum’s ability to interact with her customers. The closures caused business to slow to a virtual standstill. His sidewalk service, while inspiring, proved difficult to sustain. Readers and bibliophiles love to browse and converse and escape the cares of the world into the seemingly limitless possibilities found in the fictional realms scattered across the shelves.
In “Hello, Bookstore,” Zax doesn’t retread the common theme of chain bookstores and online vendors killing independent booksellers. This isn’t a story about the beloved mother and pop bookseller being slowly buried by corporatization. Instead, Zax allows the viewer to walk through Tannenbaum’s world and pick out elements from his backstory, work through the challenges he faces, and discover how, in times of unprecedented need, a community can come together to save something they hold dear.
“I always felt at home in a bookstore,” Zax said in his production notes for the film. “By this living, breathing sense of connection to stories and voices, old and new. For me, that feeling has never been stronger than inside The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts. After spending many blissful hours listening to the stories of Matt Tannenbaum and watching him hold court at The Bookstore, I was struck by a vision to capture his essence: this person, this place and the community he serves.
When Zax started filming in 2019, he had no idea what was to come in 2020. The pandemic changed the course of his documentary.
“I only knew that it was my responsibility not to run away from the surreal and extraordinary events that were unfolding around us,” he said. “What has emerged in the difficulties of the pandemic, more viscerally than I could have ever imagined, is the symbiosis between a community and a bookstore. That a bookstore isn’t just a fancy place to pick up a book is vital to our well-being. And that we need stories more than ever.
In terms of filmmaking, Zax delivers a cluttered, jumbled documentary that’s heartfelt and uplifting. It’s as much a confirmation of the importance of independent bookstores as it is proof of the compassion of small towns. For bibliophiles, this is an essential sketch of a bookseller much loved by his community.
I can’t help but draw parallels between “Hello, Bookstore” and the loss of bookstores in Pinellas County. Before the pandemic, Lighthouse Books – formerly found on First Avenue North in St. Petersburg – moved to Dade City. When COVID hit, Haslam Bookstore – that venerable old business on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg – closed its doors to wait out the storm. To this day it remains closed, the books on its shelves frozen in time as the ghost of Jack Kerouac drifts down the deserted aisles. Despite numerous calls from the community to reopen the store, there has been no official word on when – or if – that day will ever arrive.
Unlike Tannenbaum, the owner of DoraLynn Books didn’t feel the need to reach out to the community with a plea to save the business. Donnelly faced different circumstances in a different landscape, and he made a logical choice. If he had asked for help from the community, I’d like to think Pinellas County would have answered his call. I also believe that all of his clients – from hardcore bibliophiles and avid readers to seasonal residents and regular tourists – wish him nothing but the best in all his future endeavours.
I would return every book I purchased if it brought DoraLynn Books back to life. Today, the halls where avid readers and book collectors once wasted hours searching for treasures or getting away from it all are silent and still. Only light and shadow now access empty spaces, performing their daily dance routine on the floor.
Bookstores come and go.
It might just be me, but I feel like booksellers are becoming an endangered species. With rising inflation, skyrocketing real estate values, and skyrocketing commercial and retail leases, starting any new business is daunting. Opening a bookstore in the current political climate alone could be off-putting to many would-be entrepreneurs, knowing that there are segments of the population that would rather ban, censor, and burn books than read them.
Fortunately, Pinellas still has several independent booksellers to choose from, such as Wilson’s Book World in St. Petersburg, Books at Park Place in South Pasadena, Back in the Day Books in Dunedin, and Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg.