The Profound Impacts of Decency: On ‘Hello, Bookstore’

April 29, 2022 | 3 books mentioned 6 min read

Hello, Bookstore premieres at Film Forum in NYC on Friday, April 29th.

I’m old enough to remember when “decent” was middle-school slang for “excellent.” Over the years, the word has been downgraded to faint praise, and lately it feels like the concept has gone missing from the greater discourse altogether. There are a lot of conversations around its absence, I’ve noticed, but few solid examples to take heart in when—arguably—we need it most. These days make you want to resurrect decency as a high badge of excellence.

Fortunately for us all, then, filmmaker A.B. Zax’s debut documentary feature, Hello, Bookstore, is steeped in decency from start to finish. The film is as upbeat as its title, taken from The Bookstore owner Matthew Tannenbaum’s greeting when he answers his perpetually ringing phone. Yet the film is not sentimental, or trite, or even particularly old-fashioned. Hello, Bookstore is a small-scale tale of heartening sincerity, community, and the love of books.

Part of the goodness comes straight from The Bookstore itself, with its tall wooden shelves packed with backlist and new-release books, agreeable clutter, and a wine bar in the back called Get Lit. There is an old-fashioned cash register sporting a tiny rubber chicken, New Yorker cartoons on the walls, and an ancient model train set. But the heart and soul of The Bookstore is Tannenbaum—a soft-spoken, lanky raconteur who exudes an instant, generous camaraderie.

Tannenbaum bought the store, in the Berkshires town of Lenox, Mass., in 1976, days shy of his 30th birthday. He had done a stint as a bookseller in Manhattan’s late, beloved Gotham Book Mart, but had no experience running a business—and, as he’s quick to note, no real business sense either. He learned on his feet: how to juggle credit, how to hand-sell a book to almost anyone, and, most important, what kind of merchant—and citizen—he wanted to be: not just a seller of books, but a connector of people. “One day,” he told me, “somebody gave me tickets for Tanglewood. I gave them to a customer. And the next day, the customer came in and said, ‘I sat next to somebody who I went to high school with and hadn’t seen in 45 years. You did that.’”

In 2019, Zax, a lifelong lover of bookstores, was grappling with his own feelings as he watched local concerns being squeezed out—“these little businesses that are such a life force for our community. Coming to The Bookstore and seeing Matt, and seeing the way he has created this literary oasis in this really magical place, I felt like I wanted to celebrate it.”

Tannenbaum agreed to being celebrated, and Zax began shooting that fall, when all was relatively right in the world. “It started off as a very different project,” Zax explains. “It was going to be a seasonal portrait of the bookstore, just capturing the soul and essence and atmosphere.”

So we get Tannenbaum in high form, bantering with everyone who passes through, waxing so sincerely enthusiastic—“It took me three days to read this book,” he tells one woman. “My bookmark never had a chance. I would close it and open it right back up again”—that the merchandise practically floats into customers’ hands. He is in turns gregarious and sympathetic, as good with a literary anecdote or quoted passage from a book he’s loved as he is with a dad joke, holding court from the wooden desk at the front of the store as the afternoon New England light slants through the tall windows. His rapport with shoppers and browsers and passersby, babies and seniors and slightly embarrassed teenagers, is genuine, and they respond in kind.

Those countless small connections and intimacies give us all the context we need to see how seriously Covid-19, when it arrives, will change all of that.

When it hits, Tannenbaum shuts The Bookstore’s front door, and with his usual kindness turns customer after customer away—surely a heartbreaker for this affable man. His commerce model is decidedly low-tech, instructing patrons to browse the store’s website and then place their orders over the phone or shout them—along with their credit card numbers—through the front window. Tannenbaum still searches out requests in the time it takes someone to drive around the block; he wraps each book in brown paper with exquisite care. But piling purchases on a stool in front of the store—“Back up!” he thoughtfully cautions eager buyers as he edges outside—can’t replace the simpatico face-to-face and book-to-hand exchange Tannenbaum built a business on. By July 2020, usually his busiest time, The Bookstore takes a week to bring in what it would have made in a day.

So, Tannenbaum sets up a Save The Bookstore GoFundMe campaign. His appeal to friends and customers to support “the large presence in your life that is this small shop” is worded as warmly as any of his front desk transactions: “Until we can safely open our doors again, and I just don’t know when that will be, I most humbly ask you to help me to get through. It’s yours as much as it is mine.”

And it works; the community steps up. The Bookstore hits its goal within 23 hours, then exceeds it. Not only does the store survive the worst of the pandemic, but, “I’m out of debt,” Tannenbaum marvels. “I’ve never been out of debt in 45 years.”

This is not a spoiler. While it might have been tempting to build the arc of the film around the store’s peril and salvation, Zax treats it as part of the portrait, another season. The fiscal drama is not the point; Hello, Bookstore is neither a Covid movie nor a cliffhanger about The Bookstore’s fate. Tannenbaum may jokingly refer to himself as George Bailey, but this is not It’s a Wonderful Life, and although the store’s financial straits are mentioned at the beginning, that’s not the big story. The film is about doing what you love and loving the people you do it for. In other words, the profound impacts of decency.

What the Save The Bookstore campaign did, Zax says, “was bring all of these other ideas to the surface that were hovering in the subtext”—community bonds built over months and years, the way Tannenbaum takes time to listen to every person who walks in the door, and the generational links of parents buying books for their children, who in turn show up with their own children (“with fancier and fancier strollers,” Tannenbaum notes drily), who will eventually come in with kids of their own.

Zax makes sure that we, the audience, get it too. “When the store got rescued, you already knew—or you had some sense of—what the actual thing that was being rescued was,” adds Tannenbaum.

And unlike George Bailey, Tannenbaum doesn’t need to be convinced that he’s already living a good life.

As pleasurable as the storyline is—getting to watch a good man with a much-loved business triumph—there is also a great joy in simply watching time pass in The Bookstore. The light shifts with the seasons; shoppers walk the aisles in winter coats and then t-shirts and shorts. Tannenbaum’s hair grows long during the height of the pandemic. Early on, his daughter Shawnee, newly pregnant, notes that her clothes don’t fit anymore; as the film winds down, it’s impossible not to beam with delight watching Tannenbaum on the floor with the new baby.

covercoverTannenbaum was introduced to literature as a young man fresh out of the navy, and it opened up his eyes and his life to a new, wonder-filled way of being. “Fiction is the filter through which I see the world,” he says in the film—a way of engaging rather than escaping—and his pleasure is deeply contagious. Throughout Hello, Bookstore, he reads, or quotes from memory, beloved passages, everything from Maurice Sendak’s Higgledy Piggledy Pop! to Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. Part of the fun is surreptitiously browsing the store’s shelves as Zax follows Tannenbaum through the aisles, or writing down the titles Tannenbaum recommends in passing, being drawn in as thoroughly as the reporter who comes to write up the GoFundMe campaign and in the process learns about Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Crowley, hears the story of Get Lit’s origins, checks out an original Patti Smith broadside, and—one senses—falls a little in love with The Bookstore.

Hello, Bookstore is also, more quietly, a tale with a satisfying moral for the pandemic era—Tannenbaum kept his doors closed and his customers safe, and they offered their gratitude in return. Granted, the town of Lenox—solidly blue territory in the Berkshires—would not have been a hard sell, but The Bookstore was one of the last businesses in town to reopen, he notes, which suggests a commendable level of concern and sticking to his guns.

Toward the end of the film, Tannenbaum describes an encounter with a customer. The man steps up to the front desk and says—slightly accusingly, in Tannenbaum’s telling—“I see what you do. You sit in that chair all day long, surrounded by the things you love most in the world, and all you do all day long is talk to people about the things you love most in the world. And the only time you get interrupted is when someone wants to give you money.”

Tannenbaum hesitates a beat and then agrees: “That’s my life.”

It hasn’t been a perfect one, to be sure. Tannenbaum lost both his father and his wife too early, and raised two young daughters alone. But he has parlayed what he has been given—a deep love of books and people—into a small, generous world. Hello, Bookstore doesn’t suffer from its lack of hard edges.

“Everything is informed by kindness, patience, generosity,” Tannenbaum’s daughter Sophie says of her father. “He’s got time for it all. He’s got time for everyone. Truly.” Part of the satisfaction in Zax’s story is seeing that those are not only meaningful as abstract values, but return something tangible when Tannenbaum needs it most. Mostly, though, the many joys of Hello, Bookstore lie in the small moments.

Zax describes making the film as “a gift” during the hardest times of the pandemic—“to be able to come here and have this fun, beautiful thing to do.” At one point Tannenbaum stops, mid-conversation, and looks across the room. “Look at the smile on that guy’s face,” he says. “He found a book.” We never get to see the smile on the man’s face, but we see the one on Tannenbaum’s, and that’s a gift for the rest of us.

is senior news editor at Library Journal, senior editor at Bloom, and a freelance reviewer.

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