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Supporters lament closing of Food for Thought Books

AMHERST — Food for Thought Books Collective on North Pleasant Street was a place of support for groups feeling marginalized because of their sexual orientation, gender, race or ethnicity.

The collective’s closing, announced this week, is sad not just for the Amherst community, but particularly hard for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals who live, work and study in town, said Genny Beemyn, director of the University of Massachusetts Stonewall Center.

“Food for Thought was not just a bookstore, it was a community center where LGBT people would go and find books and hang out,” Beemyn said.

In fact, Stonewall scheduled a series of open mics and other events held at the downtown bookshop throughout the school year.

“It’s a convenient, welcoming space, the staff is friendly and it’s a lot easier than doing those on campus,” Beemyn said. “It’s a real loss.”

But the 38-year-old store, which specialized in books focused on progressive and radical politics and queer and women’s studies, as well as children’s books with multicultural themes, sent an email this week letting supporters know that it was closing immediately because it could not pay its rent or staff. “Despite our best efforts ... we can no longer keep the store open,” the statement said.

Owners of the collective did not respond to an email message Tuesday seeking comment.

The collective began publicizing its financial struggles last summer, saying that online competition, particularly in the area of textbook sales, was sinking the business. Fundraisers that drew $40,293 and a reduction of its space earlier this year were apparently not enough.

The closing follows that of several other prominent bookstores in Amherst, including Jeffery Amherst Book, Goliard Books and Valley Books, and the downsizing of the religious bookstore formerly known as LAOS. Amherst Books on Main Street is the last full-time bookstore remaining in Amherst.

Social justice influence

Katherine Gilbert-Espada of Amherst said the collective was important to her when she was teaching. The staff, she said, was reliable and helpful in finding books focused on gender and LGBT issues

“I think it’s a shame they are closing,” she said.

Gilbert-Espada also displayed her artwork there and her husband, poet Martin Espada, did readings at the store.

Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at UMass, said in an email that he became familiar with Food for Thought, along with Goliard Books, in high school as he began to be exposed to different ideas.

“Although I grew up in a liberal household, I hadn’t encountered the people I saw on those bookshelves,” Page said. “I in particular remember, as I became interested in cities, picking up books by David Harvey, who I would call one of my single greatest intellectual influences.

Page said he also appreciated the “lefty” buttons and bumper stickers the store stocked.

“As I got older, and when I came back to UMass, I was especially impressed by how Food for Thought became the setting for readings and talks and events to promote action on a whole range of social-justice issues,” Page said. “They were such an important public space, beyond the Town Common, beyond UMass, where people could gather to learn about movements for justice.”

Such was the case when Food For Thought assisted people supporting the right of gay couples to be married.

Lisa Thompson of Amherst sent a letter to the Gazette in December outlining how Food for Thought advanced the marriage equality campaign by selling supporters books on the topic to be delivered to state representatives on Beacon Hill.

“Food For Thought Books really came through for us so we could do our small part in the statewide effort for marriage equality,” Thompson wrote.

Community resource

Dick McLeester, who helped found Food for Thought in 1976, said that the closing is a loss for the diversity of how information is disseminated in the community. Food for Thought, like other booksellers, provide many things Internet retailers and digital media cannot, he said.

“Independent booksellers have the ability to focus on an area and say what’s important to my community of people,” McLeester said. “They can match up the right book with the right person.”

While Internet sales take away business from local retailers, McLeester said independent booksellers depend on book signings and community gatherings, like the open mike nights Stonewall held at Food for Thought. Some of these will be shifted to the nearby The Works Bakery and Cafe, Beemyn said.

For Mitch Gaslin, who served as a co-manager at the collective and is the business manager at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, the closing of Food for Thought demonstrates that it remains a difficult time for independent booksellers.

“It’s a sad thing and really unfortunate for the town,” Gaslin said.

Landlord Barry Roberts, who reduced the rent for the collective last year to try to help it remain in business, also expressed regret that it was forced to give up. In January, Food for Thought gave up half of its space to the All Things Local food cooperative next door.

“I’m sorry to see them go,” Roberts said. “They were a tremendous tenant and good people to work with.”

The bookstore’s space, which once housed Augie’s Tobacco Shop, will be for rent. Roberts said he is also seeking a tenant for the space used for more than 20 years by D.P. Dough, which faces the parking lot behind the CVS Pharmacy. D.P. Dough, which specialized in calzones, closed during the winter.

Town Manager John Musante said the closing of any long-time business, especially retail, is difficult in the community. Still, he is confident that Amherst can sustain business other than restaurants and service-oriented businesses like banks and salons.

“The town can continue to take action steps that fulfill the principles of the master plan that promotes village center and in-fill development,” Musante said. He points to the Kendrick Place mixed-use development, which is supposed to break ground this summer, and possibly the Amherst Carriage Shops redevelopment, as helping to make downtown a thriving destination.

“Foot traffic will encourage a stronger retail presence,” he said.

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