President Emeritus Peter Pouncey signs books at the Jeffery Amherst Bookshop in 2005. Store owner Harold Gersten is fourth from left.By Emily Gold Boutilier
In the age of Amazon and Borders, the independent bookstore is but a novelty in much of the country. Still, a quarter-mile stretch of downtown Amherst has, for many years, hosted no fewer than three local bookstores—even with a hulking Barnes & Noble two miles down the road. The wealth of independent bookstores has even drawn the notice of The New York Times, which in 2007 called the Pioneer Valley “arguably the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating place in the nation.”
So it took many by surprise when the Jeffery Amherst Bookshop and College Store—where most every Amherst student has gone to buy course books—closed in the fall. The owners, Howard and Joy Gersten, had decided to retire, and no one came forward to buy the store.
Amherst College and the Jeffery Amherst Bookshop have a long history together. Paul French ’26 opened the South Pleasant Street store in 1937. The Gerstens, who are the third owners, took over in 1978. “The store was pretty run-down when we bought it,” Howard Gersten says. “The former owners had pretty well given up the business. We worked very hard to build it up and make it into one of the best bookstores in New England.”
Over the years, the store hosted many book-signings and readings by Amherst alumni and parents in town for Family Weekend, Homecoming and Reunion. Among the notable alumni who have passed through the doors are Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown ’86, who autographed copies of his book; novelist Chris Bohjalian ’82 (“He used to haunt the store” as a student, Howard Gersten says); and former CIA directors Stansfield Turner ’45, William Webster ’47 and John Deutch ’60. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, mother of Michael Goodwin ’99, also held book-signings there.
In addition, the shop ordered books for almost every Amherst course, because the college has no bookstore of its own. Now, professors and academic department coordinators say they’ve been placing orders at Amherst Books or Food for Thought Books, the two other bookstores in the center of town.
The Jeff was a meeting spot as well as a store. “It was a place to swap opinions on books (much better than reading reviews on Amazon.com), and it had the coolest children’s book nook in town,” says Professor of French and European Studies Ron Rosbottom, the Winifred L. Arms Professor in the Arts and Humanities. “Amherst Books and Food for Thought Books are excellent stores too, but where there were three (and there used to be seven or eight) around the center of town, there are now two—and counting.”
It’s possible but unlikely that a buyer will emerge, Howard Gersten says. Whatever happens, he doesn’t expect the area’s reputation as a book-lover’s paradise to suffer. It’s not easy to own an independent bookstore these days, he says, “but it can still be done, especially in a town like Amherst.”
Photo by Frank Ward.