Art in Paradise: 40,000 Books

If you’re reading this newspaper, chances are pretty high that you are a reader in the broader sense, a lover of the written word. For those of us who fall into that camp, the loss of sight is a gut-wrenching possibility.

There are, of course, audio books, Braille, and various “adaptive technologies” to magnify what’s in print. But for those who aren’t helped by magnification, an awful lot of material never makes it to audio or Braille.

For Bob Willig, who’s run Troubadour Books since the mid-’90s, failing sight means not only the loss of the ability to read, it means the diminishing of his ability to do his job.

In a recent conversation, Willig showed me what he meant. He pointed to four boxes of newly acquired titles, ready to sort and shelve. “That might take me all day,” said Willig. “It might have taken only an hour and a half before.”

He opened a slim volume, looking for the copyright page. “Is that it?” he said. “It’s got to be one of these.”

Willig first had trouble, he explained, around a decade ago, thanks to decreased bloodflow to the optic nerve. The 30 to 40 percent vision loss was permanent. “I muddled along,” he said.

Willig is an amiable guy, and he doesn’t shy away from making plain the difficulties of what he’s faced. The past few years have brought further troubles, and now his vision has decreased to the point that he can no longer truly read, even though he’s surrounded by around 40,000 books.

“It’s a particularly Dante-esque kind of hell,” he said. “I’m not sure what I did. I figured I must have done something to be in this ring of hell!”

The words are harsh, but Willig delivered them with a laugh. Talk to him for long, and you get the impression that it’s just that kind of ability to mix the difficult with the lighthearted that’s enabled him to keep pursuing the increasingly tough job of selling books under such circumstances.

“I can still shelve,” he said, “and read a little with a magnifying glass.”

Sometimes, he said, he feels like he’s mostly just a greeter any more. Defining his new role is an ongoing project.

That role is also changing because of Troubadour’s new location, near Route 9 in Hadley (the old store was in North Hatfield). Troubadour now inhabits about half of the large space that used to belong entirely to Sam Burton’s Grey Matter Books.

The addition of Troubadour seems to herald a truly anomalous happening: the rise of a close-knit community of book-related businesses in Hadley, in the middle of an economic downturn and in the era of the supposedly dying book. Not far from the bright basement full of books that houses Grey Matter and Troubadour, you’ll find Flying Object (run by Guy Pettit) a small space that’s equal parts bookstore, letterpress and art gallery, devoted in large part to books as objects of both art and literature.

Willig says he’s long thought of the ideal bookstore as something more along the lines of an artistic “salon,” and it seems certain that that spirit is fuelling Hadley’s unlikely mini-renaissance of book arts, rather than inspiring competition between businesses.

It’s clear that Willig faces thorny issues as his vision loss makes his work harder. It’s also clear that his pleasant garrulousness—when I walked in, Willig and Burton were chatting about a heady end of the philosophical/religious world—and his love of books and bookselling will ensure his ongoing role as a Valley stalwart, a guide to the rewards of the printed page for those of us who find a bright basement full of books an irresistible draw.

Author: James Heflin

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