A Bookstore Brings A Sense Of Community To Medford

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First of two parts

MEDFORD, Mass. — I love it when booksellers make their presence felt. Like the time I was in The Bookstore in Lenox and asked the guy holding court at the register if he knew anything about a book by Malachy McCourt, Frank’s brother.

''Yeah, it's terrible," he said, as he got off his chair and put it back on the shelf. “This one’s much better,” he said as he sold me a different book about growing up Irish. The bookseller in question was the charismatic Matthew Tannenbaum and now no visit to the Berkshires is complete without dropping in on Tannenbaum and The Bookstore. I love Tanglewood, I love the theaters there, but it’s The Bookstore where one goes to get a sense of Lenox community.

Stephen Puleo autographs books at Bestsellers Cafe.  (John Harrison)
Stephen Puleo autographs books at Bestsellers Cafe. (John Harrison)

Those few months stretched into five years. After more structural faults were found, licenses were tardy, and other delays occurred, Rob Dilman was finally allowed to reopen last August. Medford Square is still not the most thriving urban spot in the state, but at least it has repaired the hole in its soul.

There are new restaurants, with bars catering to the sports crowd, and a nice wine store, but it’s Bestsellers Cafe where you go to get a sense of community, more so now than five years ago. “Hiring Audrey [Stanwood] as events coordinator has brought a lot of people into our store," says Dilman. "They haven’t known Bestsellers as an events place. We recently had a good panel discussion, Sisters in Crime, with a number of authors who’ve been writing for years and only one had ever been in our store before.”

Dilman has been able to add more books and indie bestsellers are competitively priced, though he doesn’t have the shelf space of some of Cambridge’s better independent bookstores like Harvard Book Store or Porter Square Books. He’s been able, though, to make that something of a virtue. Buying one of those independent bestsellers — Herman Koch's "The Dinner," the last time I was in — along with a chicken cranberry on rye and a cup of coffee and feasting over all of them while looking out onto the Mystic River – surrounded by books and local art – is a pleasure like no other. It's Medford on the Mystic in full glory. You're actually looking out on the Lydia Maria Child scenario, "Over the river, and through the wood [not woods],/ To Grandfather's house [not Grandmother's] we go."

And then there’s that sense of community. Dilman, like Tannenbaum, adds the personal touch to bookselling. I’ve seen him greet customers with a smile and say, “I’ve got just the book for you” and he turned me on to Mark Edmundson's excellent book about growing up in Medford, "Teacher: The One Who Made The Difference."

Rob Dilman.  (Jarred Barracks/
Rob Dilman. (Jarred Barracks/

Dilman, who spent the five-year interim as a manager at BJ’s Wholesale Club, says, “As much as I enjoyed BJ’s, I was one of a team of managers, but customers rarely knew me. But here there’s a sense of community not just to customers, but my relationship to the staff. We’re family. You get to see what customers purchase and know what they like and but it’s also, when Marianne got pregnant, there was such an outpouring of support for Charlie as a newborn. There’s a sense of community that we felt as parents. It doesn’t always generate thousands of dollars of sales, but it makes it easier to come in and be greeted by friendly customers, and develop those relationships.”

It’s also one of the few places where old working-class, white Medford meets new professional, diverse Medford and even where the religious meets the secular. Last week the staff of Redemption Hill Church was having a meeting, unobtrusively talking about future plans – their services are at nearby Springstep. “We love coming to Bestsellers,” said Tanner Turley, lead pastor of the church. “It’s such a beautiful, scenic setting. The staff is friendly. It’s a great place to gather with friends.”

It could just as easily have been a gathering of the store’s LGBT book club. There are bridge lessons on Monday morning and café music on Friday nights and author events with local writers like Stephen Puleo and William Martin. Historical novels are big in Medford.

As I was coming out of the store local artist Adele Travisano was coming in and we stopped to chat about Bestsellers.

It felt like Medford Square had its heartbeat back.

Next: Montpelier And Its Book (And Record) Stores

This program aired on March 29, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.