Ken Schoen, founder and owner of Schoen Books, has created an oasis filled with important and rare Jewish texts at his store located inside a 1930’s era firehouse in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. Visitors to the shop can expect to find volumes in multiple languages, classical music playing on the stereo and the occasional poetry reading as well as a proprietor and staff dedicated to sharing their love for Jewish books and ideas with customers. In this interview with the New Vilna Review, Mr. Schoen talks about what inspired him to begin this endeavor, how his business has changed over time and the kinds of things that he likes to read.
NVR: For our readers who may not have heard of Schoen Books, can you give us a brief description of your business and what inspired you to start this unique bookstore?
I like to tell people that The Haunted Bookshop, a novel by Christopher Morley was my inspiration. His fictional bookshop proprietor delighted in identifying and prescribing the right tome for the soul. My rampant bibliomania, my desperate need to buy yet another book led finally to its logical conclusion: I became a book dealer. I satisfied the passion for hunting books with the excuse that I would sell them, having had the pleasure of possession for a brief moment. Walter Benjamin has captured eloquently the profound psychological and perhaps sensual pleasure in collecting books and holding them. (Walter Benjamin: “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” in Illuminations, Engl. trans. (London: Fontana, 1982), pp. 59-60, 63, and 66-67. http://www.idehist.uu.se/distans/ilmh/Ren/benj-bookcoll.htm)
Some of our holdings can be seen on the web site http://www.schoenbooks.com. We specialize in Judaica in all languages including Yiddish and Polish, but especially German Judaica; also, books on the Shoah, works by exile and refugee writers, books about Israel, and also the social sciences. We upload internet catalogs of recent acquisitions and send them to. We travel widely purchasing fine scholarly libraries. There are at least 20,000 books that are stranded in my bookstore hotel. They call out for new homes.
We are in South Deerfield, which is in Western Massachusetts (about 90 miles west of Boston, about 80 miles East of Albany, and 30 minutes north of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Springfield. We maintain a (usually) open shop weekdays and by appointment on Sundays. In all cases, a call ahead is strongly recommended; 413-665-0066.
NVR: Can you give us a snapshot of what your clientele looks like – who comes to Schoen Books?
Scholars and research libraries are our main clientele via the internet. Occasionally itinerant pilgrims stop by. We have been known to serve a light lunch.
There are only about five or so serious full-time book dealers in the United States specializing in out-of-print scholarly Judaica. And serious seekers of obscure titles know where to find us.
NVR: What can visitors to your bookstore expect to find?
A mysterious adventure unfolds behind the bay doors of the 1930s WPA former firehouse. Those with a vivid imagination may bump into Franz Kafka reading an insurance text, Theodor Herzl reading a pamphlet on Palestine, Sigmund Freud pondering a sphinx, Gershom Scholem scribbling marginalia on mysticism, Uriel Weinreich deciphering Yiddishisms, and Bruno Schulz sketching under the sign of the crocodiles.
Wandering the aisles is an intellectual journey…and a place to linger and delight in the journeys of others and commence your own pilgrimage. The books are not organized by subject, but find themselves nonsensically shelved simply by order of appearance…much like the list characters in a theatrical playbill. The shop is a respite from the maddening pace and pressures of modern life, a place of solace and also community. The strains of a Bach suite or a Schubert trio completes the experience.
Throughout the year, we hold occasional poetry readings and talks about art, travel and Jewish topics. The shop is close to several museums: Historic Deerfield and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, the National Yiddish Book Center, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and the Five Colleges and their art museums.
NVR: How have you built up your inventory over the years? Have the kinds of books that you sell changed much since you first started your business?
I buy books from professors who are retiring or downsizing for various reasons, and university libraries that are weeding and deaccessioning. I do not mind library markings. Most of my clientele doesn’t either. The content is the primary concern. Much of European Judaica was destroyed by the Nazis and what made it over to the United States came with the refugees or was purchased earlier by American libraries. I feel it is a sacred task to bring these books back to being read again. In the interim we offer them refuge.
When I started in 1990, there seemed to be a greater interest in books on the Shoah, and Holocaust Centers were building their collections. Now, there seems to be less interest. Or, it may reflect a lack of funds or a shift toward electronic purchases. The unusual titles and those in foreign languages sell best and the Europeans are buying more than ever before. The more common titles are now easy to find inexpensively anywhere via the internet. For those titles you no longer need a specialist. They are so inexpensive that I donate many of these titles to local schools.
NVR: Can you tell us a little about your background and what inspired your passion for Jewish books? I grew up surrounded by German Jewish refugees in Forest Hills (Queens, N.Y.). All my grandparents were cattle dealers in Germany (http://www.schoenbooks.com/wordpress/?p=111 ) and my father had a coffee roasting business in NYC, selling coffee to restaurants. I have continued the tradition of being a merchant. I did not become a yeshiva bocher as all my male cousins did, but instead I sought out scholarly Judaica to read. It is partly to honor the heritage of my family coming out of Germany that I became immersed in German Judaica.
I was a school teacher in New York City and then a psychiatric social worker focused on children and families. I have always belonged to a Conservative movement shul and within that orbit I have founded a Men’s Club and run a Jewish Seniors group in Northampton, MA.
NVR: Is there anything else you would like to add? The “we” I have been referring to includes my wife, Jane Trigère and my young assistant, Nathaniel Otting, who is the main blogger on my web site. It gives me great naches that he has started his own bookshop (http://www.flying-object.org).
Jane is an artist (www.trigere.com) and some of her work is in an exhibition now (until June 30, 2011) at the Hebrew Union College Museum in NYC. She was a member of kibbutz Kfar Giladi for 6 years and also co-founded Yedidei Hasefer (Israel Bibliophiles) in 1980. She is descended from seamstresses and tailors. Her father Robert Trigère was born in Odessa, raised in Paris and came to the USA in 1937. He and his sister Pauline were major players in the garment industry on Seventh Ave. in NYC.
The children from our blended family are Rebecca who is starting out in social work, Seth who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Rachel who is a massage therapist, and Shatay who is an art director. We are the proud grandparents of three future readers.
What few people know about me is that I am addicted to detective thrillers in the genre of Alan Furst and Philip Kerr.
Today I would like to prescribe two novels that are not well-known and need a wider audience.
The 13th Man by Murray Teigh Bloom is a thrilling novel of suspense based on historical events.
The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht is a mystery about identity and loss after the Shoah.
For more information on Schoen Books, please click here. (http://www.schoenbooks.com/)
Copyright 2011 The New Vilna Review.