In Its Time, and Still Remains So
By Edward Shanahan
Some years back, a woman of great energy and even more enthusiasm visited my bookstore in quest of material published by the Hampshire Bookshop.
It was striking that someone from far-off South Carolina should be so curious about a now defunct local bookstore, but I was soon to learn that Barbara Brannon was serious about her interest.
She telephoned from time to time, dropped notes inquiring about Hampshire Bookshop publications and usually stopped by during her periodic research trips to the Smith College archives.
My own knowledge of the Hampshire Bookshop was limited to personal regret when the shop closed in 1971 just after we came to town, and that we were so underfunded that we were not able to buy the handsome bookstore building on Crafts Avenue across from City Hall when it subsequently came up for auction.
And shortly after coming to town, we were introduced by Alice Manning of the Gazette and former Hampshire Bookshop employee to Esther Cloudman Dunn, who we visited with subsequently on several occasions at her home on Massasoit Street. Dunn, retired Smith faculty member and distinguished scholar of comparative literature, was the household and intellectual partner of Marion Dodd, one of founders of the bookstore, and would have had tales to tell if I had known of my future interest in the book trade.
But the story is not mine to report; it belongs to Barbara Brannon, now at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and nearing completion of her book on the subject of women and American bookselling. She spoke recently to a group of about 40 or so who gathered in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith to learn more about the legendary Hampshire Bookshop.
Brannons talk, linked to the upcoming conference at Smith on Virginia Woolf, drew certain parallels between the steady evolution of the Hampshire Bookshop in the 1920s and 1930s and the notoriety Woolf and her Bloomsbury circle were achieving in England during that period.
While there is no evidence, Brannon said, that Woolf and Marion Dodd ever met, their efforts were complementary in bringing women writers and readers together, in the company of books.
A decade after starting the shop, Dodd had proved that women could sell books, which was a rather new phenomenon, Brannon explained. By then the bookstore was entering its heyday, just as Woolf and the Bloomsbury group of painters, writers, and thinkers was changing the perception of the role of emerging women artists.
For the record, the bookshop was started by two Smith graduates - Dodd from the class of 1906 and Mary Byers Smith, class of 1908. For Dodd, the bookstore was her hereditary calling, Brannon noted. Her grandfather was the founder of the Dodd Mead publishing firm, while Mary Smith from a prosperous New England family, was able to provide the start-up capital of some $25,000.
The choice of Northampton as the place to begin this novel venture was based largely on the reputation Northampton had for being progressive and tolerant, said Brannon, a place where women could floursh personally and professionally.
Thus, the store began operating in 1916 in a space in a private home, now Duckett House on the Smith campus. Soon the business moved to 192 Main St. and then settled into its most recognizable and enduring home, 6 Crafts Ave., in the shadow of City Hall.
With its multi-paned bay windows, flower boxes, shutters and commodious interior, the shop was an inviting presence.
There was enough space on the top floor for lectures, and a large fireplace and shelves filled with books on the first floor was ideal for poetry readings.
Building on the bookshops nautical theme drawn from a line in an Emily Dickinson poem that There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away, the shop itself had some of the characteristics of a sailing ship, using an ocean-going vessel as its logo in publications, letter heads and publicity.
During all those years of growth, Smith was supportive in that the bookshop also served as the colleges bookstore.
According to Brannon, in the early part of the 20th century there was not a female face to be found in U.S. publishing. Bookselling was a male profession.
With the founding and success of the Hampshire Bookshop, that began to change and Dodd began to move into positions of responsibility in national publishers organizations. Yet, says Brannon, while Dodd and Mary Smith established their place in the world of books, they did not seek to adopt a radical stance, or make the bookshop into a soapbox.
Still, it is fair to assert, as Brannon did, that the Hampshire Bookshop was the first viable shop in the world to be run by women. They were pioneer feminists.
Soon other women proprietors of bookstores, including ones in South Hadley and Poughkeepsie, joined with the Hampshire Bookshop as a kind of collective enterprise to promote themselves as The Company of Books, or what Brannon called the feminization of the business by continuing to bring together those who read books and those who write them.
By this time. Mary Smith had retired and Marion Dodd and Esther Dunn became housemates and traveling companions ... partners in a discreet relationship.
They traveled to England and visited Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson and were great supporters of the work of Woolf and her circle, and were naturally devastated by Woolfs death by suicide in 1941 because of the kinship Dodd felt for Woolf.
Not only did the Hampshire Bookshop sell books but it became a small publishing company on its own, producing more than 40 titles in all shapes and sizes. My own favorite is the large detailed volume titled Birds of the Connecticut Valley, which was published in 1937 and researched and written by Aaron Bagg and Samuel Eliot, a Smith College professor of English and theater.
Brannon reports that Marion Dodd began to withdraw from the business in the late 1940s and in 1951 turned the shop over to a successor, Cynthia Walsh, who ran it for another 10 years, before it changed hands a few more times, until a non-book proprietor finally had to close it in 1971.
The shape of the bookshop building on Crafts Avenue remains the same to this day, but it has been subdivided and put to many different uses. Whenever I pass by it, I am reminded of the spirit and intelligence that animated it.
And we should be grateful to Barbara Brannon for resurrecting and elaborating on its noble history and lasting contributions.
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