By Catherine Madsen
Rural New England is home to some surprising Jewish treasures, places you might never expect to find outside New York. One of these is Schoen Books, which hides unassumingly in a small former firehouse in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. It’s easy to miss: the firehouse looks like a common brick house with unusually large garage doors, and only a printed sign in one of the garage-door windows reading SCHOEN BOOKS and in the other a poster of the eyes of Albert Einstein reveal that anything odd is going on. But step behind those doors and you encounter tohu vavohu: 25,000 volumes of Judaica, Holocaust literature, modern European history, works on Zionism and Israel, works by exile and refugee writers, works on psychoanalysis–a rich chaos of books, journals, ephemera, rarities, in all languages and in all states of preservation.
Ken Schoen is one of five or so dealers in the country who handle Jewish books in this volume and at this intensity. He sells to scholars, collectors, and libraries all over the world, providing a level of personal service that is rare in this age of computerized ordering. He has helped to supply the library at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and libraries in England, Germany, Israel, and China, as well as academic libraries all over this country. He has also helped develop a library for the Hatikvah Holocaust Center in Longmeadow, Mass., which his wife Jane Trigère directs. (Bookselling runs in her family: Jane’s brother Ed Morrow owns the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont.) Much of Schoen’s business is done by phone, fax, and e-mail–as is inevitable with such a far-flung clientele–and the store does not keep regular hours because he is often away on buying trips, but he will give lunch to any visitor who calls ahead: he and his family live above the store.
“It’s a yeshiva-like existence,” he says–a total immersion in buying, selling, and cataloging Jewish books. Hundreds of books a week pass through his hands. Recent additions to his stock are a collection of French material from the 1940s and a 2500-volume rabbinic library of classic Jewish texts. Often his acquisitions include old prayer books that have been superseded by new editions; some shelves overflow with siddurim, haggadot, Reform hymnals, the outmoded liturgical books of families and synagogues. No one buys such material; the traditional way of retiring holy books is to bury them, but Schoen prefers to locate people who need them. For some years he has been supplying Jewish communities in Germany with German-Hebrew siddurim and chumashim, some of them beautiful prewar editions with leather bindings and gold edges. Schoen’s parents both came from Germany, and he undertook the German prayer book project partly to honor them; it is part of a larger labor of love, the retrieval of 19th and 20th-century German-Jewish material, to which he feels called. He speaks feelingly of the honor of doing his work; clearly there is nothing else he would rather be doing.
Schoen plans eventually to renovate the front of the store (where the fire engines used to be parked) as a community center which will offer concerts, readings, and classes. This will extend the labor of love in a new direction, and should attract many people who know of his work only through his ads and through rumor to come and see for themselves this remarkable store.
Catherine Madsen is a writer, lay leader at the Jewish Community of Amherst, and contributing editor to the theological journal, Cross-Currents. Currently, she is a visiting lecturer in the Jewish Studies Department at Mt. Holyoke College.