Art in Paradise: By the Books

Weird paradoxes are afoot in Easthampton. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the town’s current mix of old-school mill town and high-art upstart-ism, something comes along to up the ante.

Head down Cottage Street and on one side you’ll see Whiskerz Pub, a place where a line of gleaming motorcycles always stretches in front. On the other side you can find, among other things, high-end furniture and home design. Since December, a new sign has joined the Cottage Street roster: White Square Books.

It’s a topic that’s already seen some daylight in this space, a point of ongoing fascination: why is the Valley sprouting brick-and-mortar bookstores when even major book retailers are disappearing with alarming regularity, thanks to the tough economy and the encroachment of e-books?

For one thing, Eileen Corbeil, who co-owns White Square with her husband Randy, seems to have plenty of room in her thinking for electronic and print media. She tells me, “I’ll sit at the [book] auction, and I’m reading Pride and Prejudice on my iPhone!”

Though Corbeil says e-books aren’t necessarily her first choice in reading, she sees them as largely a good thing, a way for publishers to see what sells before funding the production of physical objects.

It’s also clear that the kind of bookselling Corbeil does is less vulnerable to the e-book invasion. That is something of a commonality among the new and old Valley book stores that soldier on. White Square is full of two primary varieties of book: $5-35 used books in very good condition, and collectible works with higher (sometimes much higher) price tags. Both, but especially the latter, appeal to those who love the physicality of books.

“There’s a huge niche for fine books,” says Corbeil, “for people who love the tactile nature of reading them, holding them, admiring them.”

She says books like that make people feel comfortable, and the sense of comfort seems important: the air in White Square feels a touch rarefied. Comfortable couches and chairs invite reading and chatting; the furnishings and the shelves weighed down with titles feel more Oxford than Easthampton, more 1911 than 2011. Those pleasant touches never seem to accompany e-books.

Corbeil and her husband are an interesting case study in old Easthampton meets new. They may be furthering the town’s burgeoning identity as an arts outpost, but they have been there far longer than most of the arts community. “We’ve lived in town for 35 years,” says Corbeil.

The store represents the fulfillment of some big dreams for Corbeil, who still works full-time as operations director for UMass-Amherst admissions. The Corbeils wanted to be part, she says, of the “Cottage Street Renaissance,” but more than that, they wanted to be part of an under-the-radar part of Easthampton.

She explains that the book arts—producing and preserving handmade or antique books—are hardly a new phenomenon in Easthampton. She reels off a list of the big names (some of them internationally known) in book arts who already practice their craft just down the road at One Cottage Street: Carol Blinn, Sarah Creighton, Stephanie Gibbs, Ruth Sanderson, Peter Geraty and Daniel Kelm. By way of example, Corbeil says she paid a visit to Geraty, and he couldn’t talk for long: he had to get back to repairing a 15th-century Bible with liquid leather.

It’s part of another side of Easthampton, she explains, a side that outsiders know about more often than Easthampton residents. Those sides, those different worlds, seem to coexist happily for Corbeil, and she sees in that kind of co-existence a good possibility for Easthampton’s ongoing melding of old and new. The longstanding, if hard to pin down, character of Easthampton can, as she sees it, combine with the growing arts community in a way that’s still uniquely Easthampton.

“The trick is to make it a viable business proposition,” she says. She’s already allowed some months for White Square to find its sea legs as a business, and, though she says that’s been a learning process and not always easy, she also adds, with a mix of caution and happiness in her voice, “So far, we’re holding our own!”

For White Square and the Valley’s many other used book stores, remaining viable is indeed the trick. Whatever the reason for their success—the persistent love of books as physical objects; the Valley’s penchant for the arts; the affordable thrill of a great find at a pleasantly dusty book store—it’s a tribute to the singularity of Easthampton.

Author Ransom Riggs reads from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children July 27 at 5 p.m. at White Square Fine Books & Art, 86 Cottage St., Easthampton, (413) 203-1717.

Author: James Heflin

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