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TOM FARRAGHER

It reads like fiction, but it’s true: A community rallies around to save its beloved, rambling old bookstore

'They really love me. I am George Bailey'

Matthew Tannenbaum in his independent bookstore, which he has owned in Lenox since 1976.
Matthew Tannenbaum in his independent bookstore, which he has owned in Lenox since 1976.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

LENOX — He’s been at his well-worn post just inside the front door at the venerable bookstore here for more than 43 years now. A long time. A lifetime of stories. An anthology of small-town life in the Berkshires.

He’s sold thrillers and classics. Poetry and dense histories. Coffee table books and the works of Kerouac and Tolstoy, of J.D. Salinger and the masterful Richard Russo.

But Matt Tannenbaum, now 74 and a beloved fixture at The Bookstore on Housatonic Street, had never seen a tale quite as compelling and heart-warming as the one now unfolding here.

It’s a drama worthy of Hollywood magic created by Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, who once played a small-town businessman named George Bailey driven into darkness only to be saved by the generosity of beloved friends and neighbors.

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And it goes like this:

A historic pandemic sweeps across the United States, killing tens of thousands, derailing an economy and sending jitters along the main streets of small-town America, the place where Tannenbaum has long and happily made his living.

“For all these years, I’ve been in business and I’ve managed to creep by,’' he told me at The Bookstore the other day. “And suddenly — very suddenly because I’m not a businessman — I had a big payable due and I realized: I don’t have any money coming in.‘'

That meant there was a death watch on Housatonic Street. That meant the place Matt Tannenbaum had bought from David Silverstein on April Fool’s Day in 1976 was facing an existential crisis — a tear-jerking epilogue — all its own.

That meant no more poetry readings. No more cozy wine bar in the room just steps from his bookshelves. That meant no more magical connections with customers who, like him, have fallen in love with the written word.

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It meant an against-all-odds campaign to save a little beloved bookstore that has woven its way into the fabric of civic life here. A GoFundMe campaign has raised $103,000 so far.

“For some reason they really like me,’' Tannenbaum said of his customers and supporters. “They really love me. I am George Bailey.‘'

Actually, Matt Tannenbaum is the second of four children born in New York City, growing up in an apartment house full of European refugees.

His father died when he was just 12 from heart disease the day before he was to have open-heart surgery performed by Dr. Michael DeBakey, the world-famous cardiovascular surgeon who pioneered bypass surgery.

An aspiring teacher, Tannenbaum attended American University in Washington, where he worked his way up to editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, leaving in 1968 without earning a degree. Eventually he found his true love and his avocation at the famous Gotham Book Mart in Midtown Manhattan where he worked briefly as a clerk.

He worked on John Lindsay’s successful 1969 reelection campaign for New York City mayor, later taking a job with a group protesting the Vietnam War. He attended Brooklyn Law School in 1970, before deciding two things: It was too difficult. And he wasn’t interested.

Eventually, he found himself in the Berkshires surrounded by bohemians and books. He was home. And then nervous.

“I got cold feet,’' he recalled. “What am I doing? I’ve never owned anything like this. I took one class in business. That’s why I’m sitting here now.”

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That applause you’re hearing is coming from grateful, longtime customers who — over the long years now — have become more than browsers along his bookshelves. They’ve become his loyal clientele, his literary fan club.

“He’s a marvelous character and a character he is,’' Paula Lustbader, 84, of Lenox and Palm Beach, told me the other day as she purchased a book via a credit card from Tannenbaum from behind the glass window of his front door.

“We appreciate that we have this small bookstore and it’s very intimate,’' she said. “He’s got a creative ability. Look what he’s done with this wine bar. He creates community for all of us. And that’s why the community loves him. If you talk about The Bookstore in Lenox, people say, ‘Oh yeah, Matt!’ ‘'

His younger daughter, Sophie, a 30-year-old Great Barrington vegetable farmer, would agree with that. And so would Tina Packer, founder and former artistic director of Shakespeare & Company here.

“He’s terribly knowledgeable without being pompous or academic,’' Packer said. “People said, ‘We can’t let that happen.’ The town would be really a much poorer place without him. I hope he gets more than he needs so he gets a little piggy bank.‘'

She’s a fan of the store and its colorful history.

David Silverstein opened the bookstore here in the summer of 1966, encouraged to get into the business by Alice Brock, the central character in Arlo Guthrie’s anthem, “Alice’s Restaurant.‘‘

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“Alice was an avid reader and she said, ‘Why don’t you open a bookstore?’ ‘’ Silverstein recalled. So he did and moved the store to Lenox, where Tannenbaum bought it from him.

“I think it’s fabulous,’' he said about the campaign to save his old shop. “I’m happy for him, happy for the bookstore. I feel so touched that people are appreciative of an independent bookstore, especially that bookstore, which is a special place.‘'

A special place. That’s precisely how Tannenbaum’s 34-year-old daughter Shawnee described the place she will take over when it’s time for a transition of family ownership.

“I grew up here and I want her to grow up here,’' she said, nodding to her 4-month-old daughter, Siena, who sat bright-eyed in her arms. “It’s so special. People love it. This is like my second home. Besides my house this is home.‘'

Like any old home, the place is full of memories. Like the famous authors who came by to sign their books. Or the time a wife fruitlessly tried to keep her husband from browsing books that she knew would consume hours of their vacation.

“We hear a woman’s voice, saying, ‘Harold! Don’t go in The Bookstore! Harold! Harold! Harold, don’t go in The Bookstore! Harold, stop!’ And then the guy walks in The Bookstore and we hear outside: ‘We lost him.’ ‘'

And there was that time, two summers ago, when a customer approached him at his post near the front door.

“He said, ‘I see what you do. You sit in that chair surrounded by the things you love most in the world and you talk to people. And the only time you get interrupted is when someone wants to give you money.‘’ '

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Bingo, Matt Tannenbaum thought.

“People love The Bookstore,’' he said. “Again, I’m not going to brag, but there’s a certain amount of customer service that we do here. I have not read every book in this store. I’ll tell you the truth. But the ones that I have read are the ones I enjoy. And I can find something to enjoy in every book.‘'

And now, for the man whose professional life has been surrounded with stories of adversity and triumph, of humor and tragedy, there’s a certain sense of accomplishment as he roams his old store wearing boat shoes, a blue button-down shirt — and a cranberry mask.

He has compiled a compelling story of his own. And soon, but not right now, he’ll be ready to write its last line.

It won’t say The End.

Because, if you ask his daughter, there’s a sequel coming. It’s got a catchy title. So write this down:

To Be Continued.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.