Wake up in a hotel in a city you’ve never visited before. Walk the morning streets to search for coffee. Bask in the scent of bread and breakfast foods as you pass cafes and bakeries downtown. Pass the bars you stopped into the night before, places where patrons and staff held after hours gatherings that broke up around the time you woke in the warm white sheets of your hotel bed. Sit in the park and take it all in, sipping your coffee and waiting for the local bookshops to open. Do this, even if this new city is small and quaint and only an hour or so from home. Especially if that city is Northampton, Massachusetts.
I’d never been, but I’ve known plenty of people who attended Smith College over the years, and all of them spoke of Northampton with adoration and nostalgia: the quirky shops that have come and gone, the excellent food, the bars, and of course, the bookstores. A while back I decided to see for myself and encountered no disappointments. Immensely walkable with subtle gems around every corner, Northampton and the surrounding communities have an abundance of great bookshops.
The first bookstore I visited was Raven Used Books. It was later in the evening after a dinner of rabbit at Homestead and a couple of cocktails at The Tunnel Bar (if you know, you know). I was delighted to see their late hours and wandered in to find a shop full of browsing book hunters, mostly college students but a handful of other locals and visitors like myself. The shop feels like the basement level of Strand in NYC, where the rooms and halls twist around and sometimes lead you into dead ends, and sometimes bringing you back to the more open areas near the front. Displays and stand-alone units are piled with books of all varieties, including some showing new academia titles (something they specialize in), university press titles, new fiction, old pulp racks, pre-teen and YA sections, Beat poets, recent bestsellers, t-shirts and bags, and much more.
My notes describing the different rooms and how categories and genres were broken down are near gibberish, as I was trying to scan quickly before moving along to my next hangover-inducing cocktail at The Green Room, but the shop really is a marvelous place for a booklover to wander.
The next morning, after slumbering late to shake off the lingering affects of too many smoky bourbons, we drove to Amherst to visit Amherst Books, a much bigger shop than I expected. The ground floor is a multi-room shop that feels both eccentric and robust, with all kinds of tables, displays, stacks, and shelving units throughout, many mismatched in an endearing, homey way that says it’s not so much about looking flashy as selling you some damn fine books. Even the ramp up into the main room had sale books displays on folding tables, everything from coffee table books on flowers, art, and gardens to biographies and memoirs of icons great and lesser known over the last generation or two. The deals didn’t stop there either, with 25% Off tables just inside and great prices on used titles throughout, though many of the books were brand new too. The shop had a great mix of both.
Up a ramp there’s a good sized Children’s and YA area, with classics, picture books, middle grade, and all mixed in throughout are gifts, puzzles, toys, games, clothes, etc. Every nook and display has something different and unexpected. There was even a poetry dispenser, just fifty cents per poem. A great deal!
Just beyond that is the staircase leading to the basement level, where there’s an absolute trove of older books where I saw plenty of gems and interesting collections piled on carts and long library-style shelving. Anything from Harry Potter, cozy mysteries, art and music, history, regional, biography, on and on. It’s worth checking out just to see how much they have.
Back to Northampton and a quick lunch, we strolled around downtown and passed beneath a railroad bridge, taking a left to find the small but mighty second-hand shop Gabriel Books. The block and the shop itself felt pleasantly quiet, quaintly set back from the hustle and bustle, allowing for a leisurely browse through the narrow aisles stacked and jammed with books. The number of books they have piled about in this small shop is impressive, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking a look!
The shop is one of those classic used bookstores where there are gems around every turn, older editions and hard to find copies of books that may be out of print, or at least certainly not available in big box stores. But none of them felt tattered or thread-worn. The older books feel like well-preserved gifts rather than cast-offs or flotsam. And there are plenty of newer titles as well. I picked up a pristine paperback copy of On Looking: A Walkers Guide to the Art of Observation by Alexandria Horowitz for a mere few dollars, as just one example.
And as for what subjects, they cover all the classic categories. Beyond fiction and classic literature, there’s poetry, theater, history (American, European, and beyond), black studies, all manner of transportation, travel, sociology, war, art, education, architectural studies, you name it. Books are piled on the floor in each section, and there are sub-sub-categories in little nooks and endcaps. In the very back there’s a small half-off section for deeply discounted used books, which looked to be a solid mix of all offerings.
But it was time to leave Northampton, and part of me felt immense regret at doing so because there were still other bookshops to visit. Then again, that’s the best thing to leave behind, isn’t it? A few more bookshops to lure you back for another weekend of smoky drinks, warm coffee, and eccentric stores in a classic New England college town. Broadside Books and Booklink Booksellers are two I intend to hit next time, among the many others left in the area, but there’s one more I need to tell you about: the epic Montague Bookmill.
How absolutely perfect that this shop’s motto is “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find,” as we had to twist and turn our way through memory and Google directions to finally emerge from the wooded glens of the Pioneer Valley and pull into the large dirt parking lot across the street from this former mill all bustling with activity and creative offerings.
After crossing the little bridge leading into the uppermost floor of the mill complex, you’ll find a large room perfect for events and filled with tables, chairs and couches, benches, nooks, alcoves, windows pouring in afternoon sunlight, and of course shelves of books. I saw a bunch of memoir and biographies, rows of art books, and all manner of fiction and non as I wound through the rooms, halls, and staircases until I came to the room by the staff desk downstairs, which was surrounded by yet more rows and aisles of new arrival fiction, and books on history, war, photography, humor, animals, gardens, presidents, social sciences, nature, and children’s books.
In another side room we found long shelves of literary fiction, poetry, essays, mysteries, classics, and more. It was a tight squeeze through there at times because the shop was full, but we have fun maneuvering through the shelves and stacks. After a second pass through the first floor we adjourned to the café. People eating, talking, reading, and working filled the dozen or so tables there, all surrounded by big bright windows and amazing views of the stream. Up a few steps is the ordering area/bar with tea, coffee, and other drinks, plus pastries and snacks of all kinds. We eat sat with some tea and perused our recent purchases, feeling supremely relaxed and at easy in the cozy yet lively environment.
The spot isn’t near many other attractions, but it has enough going for it that you’ll want to make the trip out there anyway, spend a couple of hours looking around and sipping tea, relaxing, and enjoy simply being in a creative literary space as unique as this one. Highly recommended!
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