By Edward Shanahan
Even though he closed his used book store
in Amherst within the last month, Fred Marks is already making the
rounds in order to figure out what comes next.
Is there life after the used-book business, he is asked.
"I'll let you know, " he said over lunch the other day. "I've
already interviewed at two places. My future is strictly volunteer.
I'm not interested in the money."
But before he moves on to his third career, I wanted to talk
to Marks about his nearly 20-year run as proprietor of Book Marks,
a small store on the second level in the Carriage Shops complex
on East Pleasant Street.
Marks, now 82, opened at that location in December, 1982, after
retiring from a 30-year career as an agent for New York Life Insurance
Co. in New York City.
Marks' store was tiny by the standards of the many used bookstores
in the area, housing perhaps no more than 3,000 volumes. Marks,
who bears a strong resemblance to the late Alfred Hitchcock, surrounded
himself with books on subjects that were personal favorites -
photography, art, classical music, literature, theater and movies.
And the longer he toiled in the Amherst community the larger his
selection of volumes by and about Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.
"They were naturals, of course," he explained.
The goal of the store, he admits, was "to provide people to talk
to me about subjects I enjoyed. I looked upon the book store as
a quasi-social enterprise. I didn't look upon it as a business.
If people came and wanted to talk that was the point."
Having already had a successful career in New York, Marks could
pretty much operate his new venture in a way that served his interests.
"It was strictly a self-pleasing endeavor. I wasn't in it for
the money, for the glory. It was strictly for the pleasure."
That said, Marks claims that the store did provide him with
income, although that alone would not be enough "to live very
well." Yet it was not a money loser.
It was more than 20 years ago that Marks and his wife, Barbara,
started the process of relocating to Amherst from Long Island.
They had discovered the area as a result of traveling back and
forth from New York over the span of six years to visit their
son Graham, while he was a student at a music camp in Weston,
"We loved what we saw," Marks said, so one night over dinner
at a Greenwich Village restaurant they decided they would explore
housing possibilities in Amherst.
By 1981, they had bought a piece of land on South East Street
and soon Ted Blauvelt of Florence was building them a new home,
one designed by Barbara. "Let's put it this way," Fred Marks says,
"Barbara was always designing a house and we finally had the good
fortune to see it rise in its full glory. It works beautifully."
Recalling the first time he visited the site on which the house
was built, Marks said: "The minute I saw it there was no question
it was ours, overlooking a beautiful valley and the Pelham hills."
In intervening years, the view has not changed much because below
them is wetlands, which remain undeveloped.
By November, 1982, the house was ready for them to move in and
so Marks turned his attention to opening his book store a month
There had not been much question what he would do when he retired
the first time around. "Whenever Barbara and I hit a new town,
the first place we'd head for was the used book shop.'' Thus,
he already had a large collection of books when he retired.
"It seemed very natural to open a used book store," he said,
and so he accelerated his book purchases in anticipation of starting
his own business.
His inventory was small when he first opened his door, but eventually
as his stock grew "it got the point there was no more room for
What were his expectations when he started out? "I was playing
it by ear, what happened, happened," he said. "I later discovered
each bookseller's experience is different."
He believes his store's success was based on specialties that
were "a little off the trodden path," especially his deep selection
of books about classical music. Most used book stores don't have
a strong music section, he said, "because you have to know something
His traces his musical roots back to the 1930s when he was 10
or 11 years old. He tells of getting home from school and finding
his mother listening to a radio broadcast of Wagner's opera "Siegfried."
"I said to her what is that music?"
Whereupon, he got on the subway and headed off to the Metropolitan
Opera's box office and asked when the next Wagner opera would
be performed. It was "Tannhauser."
"I bought a ticket way up in the family circle, and that was
my first experience, he said. "Brother was I hooked."
Of all the classical genres, opera remains his favorite and accounts
for the largest segment of his personal music collection. Through
his passion for music, Marks has forged a close friendship with
John Montanari, program director at radio station WFCR, who was
a frequent visitor to Book Marks, and, in turn, Marks frequently
turned up for the station's on-air fund-raising.
"John is very generous, very good about playing opera," says
Marks. "That's unique. I've got to give him a plug. John is loyal
to the form and as a result he has made many friends for opera."
It was only very recently that Marks decided the time had come
to close his shop. Business was not great - fewer people were
coming into the shop and buying fewer books. More used book buyers
are turning to the Internet and purchasing out-of-print titles
from on-line booksellers.
"The Internet is changing the used-book trade, "he said, "but
I don't know how." Marks himself never made the switch to doing
business through the Internet.
"I find a great number of book people still enjoyed being surrounded
by books in a book shop environment," but not enough in the last
several months, he observed.
Thus, he was gratified when the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore in Saratoga
Springs, N.Y. decided to purchase his entire inventory, which
was very quickly spirited away to New York State.
"I felt damn lucky I got out so clean, " he said.
Of the last 20 years, he said: "I looked forward to every day
because you never knew who would come in, or whether anyone would
come in. But there was always a hard-core of serious book-buyers
who preferred to come to an individual shop with a point of view."
"I have no regrets. I had a good run."