Bookmarks #1: Grey Matter/Troubadour Books, Hadley, MA

The Bookmarks series will profile unique bookstores and literary spaces across the country. These landmarks, often celebrated within the cities featured in our Literary Boroughs series, are home to myriad readings, panels, classes, workshops, and — of course — books. Posts are merely introductions to these spaces; we encourage readers to contribute additional details in the comments section.

Massachusetts Route 9 is a hodgepodge stretch of road that suspends itself between Amherst and Northampton. A few road signs for Grey Matter/Troubadour Books dot this stretch, but the location itself is invisible, tucked away into some secret fold of pines right off the main drag. From the outside, the bookstore is nothing more than a small white door smacked onto the side of a big, dark barn. The inside is wondrous.

Grey Matter/Troubadour is, in essence, two bookstores that cohabitate, and the effect of this convergence can be overwhelming. One large, book-filled room spills out into another book-filled room that, in turn, spills out into another, and so forth. The books fall into sections like “The Beat and Off Beat,” “Railroads,” “Esoteric Studies,” “Dead Sea Scrolls,” or “Ancient Quasi-History,” to name a few. During my last visit, I sank into a soft chair to take some notes and noticed a sizable stack of books near my feet labeled, simply, “Circus, etc.” Shortly thereafter, a man introduced himself as a visiting professor from an Australian University; he had come to Grey Matter/Troubadour to stock up on hard-to-find books about the Renaissance. “This,” he told me, pointing all around, “is the place to come for Renaissance books.” I took his picture next to a shelf containing “16th-17th C. Early Modern/Medieval/Dante, etc./Renaissance” material. The lighting was bad — the space has a utilitarian, basement aesthetic — but the photo still captured his glee.

The origins of Grey Matter/Troubadour Books:

The Grey Matter effort started in 1998 when founder and owner Sam Burton decided to sell books online. The online business migrated from Philadelphia to New York City then to Florence, MA. In 2003, Burton opened a Massachusetts bookstore under the same name and used the space to put on weekly film screenings and shows, the latter often featuring “nervous, artsy-looking guys coaxing odd noises from their laptops, modified accordions, Casios, or what have you,” says Burton.

“Eventually the landlord grew wary of these events, which were, to be fair, borderline-illegal.” Burton was on the lookout for a new storefront nearby. This was in 2009. Around the same time, Burton’s good friend Bob Willig fell ill and needed help with his Hatfield-area bookstore and so Burton contracted Grey Matter to their current Hadley, Massachusetts location and, in 2010, took on Willig’s book haul as well. Burton then began the arduous (and still ongoing) process of organizing the entire contents of two bookstores within one space.

The store retains bits of each former self; it still offers two separate philosophy sections—one is organized alphabetically and the other is organized by school of thought, for instance. Where do newly acquired philosophy books go? To the Grey Matter side or the Troubadour side? “Wherever there’s room,” says bookstore employee, Amelia Adams.

Grey Matter/Troubadour’s wares:

“We are an all-purpose used bookstore with a heavy scholarly bent. We have more philosophy books than the rest of The Valley put together, and probably twice as much poetry,” Burton says. The space offers many first editions, collectibles, and rare signed copies; prices thus range from one dollar to “topping out somewhere in the low four figures.” Burton guesses that he has about 40,000 books, but concedes that he has never attempted to count them all.

The physical space:

“We are in the middle of nowhere in a sprawling, barn-like complex,” says Burton. But “despite the remoteness, the building houses some of the best printers in the area, who are — among them — responsible for many beautiful fine-press publications.” A few years ago, Burton read an article on the history of the photogravure process, and discovered that “one of its leading masters had been in [the] building for a decade and only just moved out.” The previous tenant had, in fact, remodeled Burton’s space in hopes of transforming it into a gallery for fine-press books.

Grey Matter/Troubadour events (and local brethren):

At present, Grey Matter/Troubadour hosts events only occasionally because the space is still relatively new and much of Burton’s time is spent reorganizing and revamping. “We have a reading in a few weeks,” says Burton, and a Transcendentalist reading group held a few meetings there recently. Though Burton doesn’t mention it, he has also hosted dozens of shows and readings over the course of just a few years.

Eager to promote other local events, Burton makes note of the area’s vibrant literary scene: “Odyssey Books in South Hadley, a well-established book store, hosts a hundred readings a year. Flying Object, only two blocks away, burst on the scene a few years ago with youthful exuberance; they have readings, like, every twenty minutes. With those, plus the events at UMass, Amherst College, etc., the reading circuit is pretty well covered.”

Noteworthy book finds:

Recently, Burton purchased one thousand 19th and early 20th century books from a fellow in Eastern Massachusetts. Among the haul he found a Utopian novel from 1891 called The Crystal Button, about a mechanic who falls into a coma and wakes up in the year 4872.

He also discovered “a volume from the same era entitled Life-Romance of an Algebraist, which consists of poems and mathematical equations, both printed sideways for no better reason than the author’s deep-grained eccentricity.”

Citing a different niche altogether, employee Amelia Adams stumbled upon a recipe book dedicated exclusively to dishes involving Beach Plums.

Grey Matter/Troubadour is, in its quiet way, a noble and dwindling breed. It is a bookstore that exists for sake of its love of the book: the book as an object, as a portal, as an art, as an artifact. And it is this kind of reverence that caters to the eccentrics, the aficionados, and the wanderers alike. Perhaps one day you will wander, take a wrong turn, and find yourself in front of Grey Matter/Troubadour. If you do, please: go inside.

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