Thursday, September 29 2022

NORTHAMPTON – After 64 years on Masonic Street, one of the city center’s oldest stores has closed.

Open since 1958, The Old Book Store turned its last page last month. In a phone interview on Tuesday, owner Henry Walz confirmed he was looking to sell the business and the basement condominium in the commercial area that she has lived in since 1979.

“I have mixed emotions about getting out of there, there’s no doubt about that,” Walz said. “I figure if I don’t retire at 73, when the hell am I going to retire.”

Walz took over the business in the early 1990s from his parents, Carl and Bliss, who first opened in the building across the street where the Masonic Street parking lot is now located.

“I don’t think anyone gets into the used book business to make a fortune,” Walz said. “I liked it. I like the books.”

But being an avid reader isn’t all it takes to run a bookstore, especially as long as The Old Book Store has been running. Walz said the fact that the family purchased the space in 1987 helped. When people tell him they like books and would like to run a bookstore, he said his “smart” response is to say it’s like telling your bartender, in the middle of a glass, that you like to drink and that you would consider running a bar.

“There’s a lot more to it than enjoying books and enjoying reading,” he said.

Walz still remembers when firefighters frequently came from the fire station down the street, where the Woodstar Café now stands. At the time, he said downtown had plenty of other reasons for a wider variety of people to visit – law and dental offices, a stationery and hardware store, to name a few. one.

“I think downtown was in many ways more diverse then than it is now,” Walz said. “It’s turning more and more into an entertainment district.”

Many things have changed since then. Online retail and e-books have made life more difficult for booksellers and other physical stores. Customers and other businesses have come and gone, and the downtown has gone through its boom and bust times.

Walz said he’s seen everything from children growing up to marriages going south. Just being part of the community was the best part of the job, he said.

W. Michael Ryan, a retired judge and former Northwestern District Attorney, reacted with sadness on Wednesday when he was told the bookstore was closing. He said that of the thousands of books at his house, at least a few hundred came from Walz’s store.

He said he first fell in love with the place as a child and recounted a flood of memories the store brought to him.

“You could come in and talk about books, talk about writers,” Ryan said. “It was a wonderful thing for me to grow as a child and throughout my life.”

While working as a district attorney and later as a judge, Ryan said he frequently stopped by The Old Book Store when he needed time off work during his lunch break. No one would pick him up there, he laughs. When he was younger, he said he would go and read books for hours and that Walz wouldn’t mind if he left empty-handed. But as an adult, he said he never leaves without a new book to read.

“For me, it was like going to church,” he joked. “If you go to church, you have to put something on when they pass by asking you for a contribution.”

Ryan said used bookstores are important and it was The Old Book Store that first introduced him to the concept of used books as a child.

“Something like the used book trade, which has always been marginal, I don’t know what the future holds,” Walz said. “There will always be used bookstores, but the glory days are probably behind us.”

Walz certainly lived through those glory days. He said he even still had a few customers in the store who were there when his parents first opened the store. But after so many years on the job, with only a week or two off most years, he is ready to start a new chapter, he said.

“At this point, I’m going to close the business, get rid of the books somehow…then I’ll clear the space and sell it,” he said.

Bookstores have been Walz’s life since he was little. He met his wife when the two were working at another bookstore. His father taught English and ran a bookstore, and of course his parents ran a bookstore too.

“It’s kind of in my blood,” he said.

But after all this time, Walz is ready for a new chapter.

“It was a good race, but it’s time to move on,” Walz said. “I was probably saying the same thing five years ago and I’ve never been out of there,” he said with a laugh before stopping, “Although I haven’t been out yet.”

Dusty Christensen can be contacted at [email protected]


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