A literary powerhouse in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley
What better place to locate a bookstore—one with a sprawling poetry section—than just up the street from Emily Dickinson’s house and around the corner from Robert Frost’s home? Amherst Books proprietors Shannon Ramsey and Nat Herold knew what they were doing when they chose Amherst, MA for their indie bookstore in 2003. And they’ve been delighting customers ever since with their diverse collection (including small press offerings), outstanding literary events, and welcoming atmosphere.
Amherst Books and I arrived in town just months apart in the early 2000s. Even after all these years, I still get a special joy when I walk inside, like I’m coming home. The literature wall with the rolling ladder, the spacious children’s corner, the comfortable armchairs, and the warm lighting all combine to create a timeless, made-for-bibliophiles quality. As one Yelp reviewer wrote, “Pitch me a tent, and I’ll just live here.”
Discussing the magic of bookstores with me, Nat quotes French philosopher Roland Barthes, who said, “Every book chooses its reader.” Nat adds, “I like to say we’re midwives in that process.”
And what well-stocked shelves these midwives keep! The store carries new and used books from local, national and international authors, including no fewer than 45 books by or about Emily Dickinson alone. With particular strengths in philosophy and poetry, the collection also includes general and science fiction, children’s literature, and books about cooking, history, gender studies, women’s studies, black studies, the sciences, essays and more.
In addition, Amherst Books hosts around 170 literary events yearly (when the country isn’t in quarantine). Luminaries like Min Jin Lee, Jericho Brown, James Tate, and Norton Juster have given talks or done readings here. So have regular-Joe local authors like yours truly. As a writer, I believe that a book’s story isn’t complete until it’s read and, ideally, discussed. Platforms that bring authors and readers together in one room elevate this co-creation to new levels. I’m grateful to Amherst Books for hosting the launch of all my books to date.
Booksellers’ origin stories
Nat grew up in a house of books and readers. “We were so bad about returning all the library books we borrowed,” he remembers, “that the Washington, D.C. public library would send a truck around once a year or so to take back their books. They never cut off our borrowing, however.”
Books were also a way for Nat to communicate with his father, who was an alcoholic. “Often the only way to spend time with him was to talk about books,” Nat recalls. “Recommending new books to each other was how we bonded.”
Shannon too took refuge in reading as a youngster. “Books carried me through a lot of lonely times,” she remembers. “So, when I was looking at colleges and saw UMass’s 26-floor DuBois Library, I knew I was going to go to school in Amherst! Once there, I got a job at the library, which then opened doors for me at Amherst Books.”
Bookselling was a natural fit for Nat because it allowed him to continue surrounding himself with books and connecting with people through book recommendations. “In other sorts of retail, you don’t learn anything meaningful about the person who’s buying, say, tissues,” he notes. “But a person reveals a lot about themselves by the books they choose.”
Shannon is on the same page (pun intended). “What I love most about bookselling,” she says, “is the idea that reading, which helped me when I was lonely, could also be the thing that connects me to others.”
Thriving as an indie bookstore is never a given in these times of fierce competition and consumer focus on the digital. Nat attributes Amherst Books’ success to strong customer service, a uniquely curated book selection, and a robust reading and book launch roster.
Shannon ascribes their progress to two components. “First and foremost, we have stayed true to our core, book-loving selves,” she says. “We constantly remember what brought us to reading and then do our best to translate that to our community.” Secondly, she and Nat know their community well. “This allows us to reflect the community back to itself by way of a carefully chosen collection.”
To supplement their revenue, Amherst Books now carries certain non-book items, including literary tote bags, postcards, and book-themed T-shirts. “We’re giving people an alternative to online shopping,” says Shannon. “An alternative that allows direct interaction with products and the chance to socialize with staff and other visitors.”
Shannon and Nat are personally committed to a vision of sustainability that promotes growing roots and being part of the local community. How lucky for readers and authors alike that this shared value produced Amherst Books.
Shirley Reva Vernick is the author of The Blood Lie, Remembering Dippy, and The Black Butterfly. Her work has garnered innumerable awards and recognition, some of which include: the American Library Association Best Fiction Books for Young Readers List, Simon Wiesenthal Once Upon A World Book Award, Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children, Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. Fitzroy Books is proud to publish Ripped Away in 2022.