A new chapter: Larry and Gloria Abramoff

Couple moves on from loss of the city’s favorite bookstore
Pamela H. Sacks

Larry and Gloria Abramoff relaxed and sipped coffee on the deck of their house in the wooded hills of Worcester’s West Side on a glorious spring morning. They chatted about their grown sons, Joe and Michael, discussed whether to water replanted shrubs and laughed about being asked whether they will stay in Worcester.

“We have no plans to leave,” Mr. Abramoff said, pointing out they both grew up in the city. “We’re here to make noise.”

The Abramoffs seemed to drop from sight after they closed their bookstore, Tatnuck Bookseller & Sons, a year and a half ago. That was deliberate, they said, because the closing was so painful for them that they needed time to recover emotionally and take stock of their lives.

“It was awful,” Mrs. Abramoff said. “I actually stopped doing my grocery shopping locally because it was a traveling funeral. People would stop me in the produce section. One person said, `You ruined my Christmas.’ They were sad, but a lot of them expressed it as anger.”

Several people tried to cheer her up by suggesting that she could now do whatever it was she had always wanted to do, “as if there was something I had been dreaming of doing,” she said with a wry laugh. “I worked at the bookstore for 30 years.”

For 26 of those years, the Abramoffs saw their business grow. They moved the store in 1991 from a small location in Tatnuck Square in Worcester to larger quarters at 335 Chandler St. Tatnuck became a place to meet family, friends and colleagues, get a bite to eat, and browse the shelves.

The Abramoffs held readings and workshops and invited community groups to use the store for free for meetings. They started a publishing company, Chandler House Press, and gave local writers a chance to see their books – often about the Worcester area – in print.

“Larry sent a great signal to the community that books are a part of life, not just a commodity,” said Ellen S. Dunlap, president of the American Antiquarian Society. “When you live in such a publicly committed way, people do feel a sense of connection and ownership. When things go south, it’s doubly painful for all concerned.”

“It was fun,” Mr. Abramoff said. “I was a hero. All of a sudden I can’t do it. It became not fun. It was a matter of market forces changing.”

Tatnuck closed in January of 2006, after a disastrous holiday season. If he has one regret, Mr. Abramoff said, it is that they didn’t sell or close the store five years earlier when the chain bookstores, the Internet and the recession of the early part of the century were starting to take a serious toll on the business they loved.

Initially, the closing left the Abramoffs struggling financially; family and friends helped out. “It was very difficult,” Mr. Abramoff said. “You find out in hard times who your friends really are. Thank God we have good support that way.”

In dealing with their declining business, the Abramoffs had reduced overhead and cut the number of buyers from five to two. Yet their expenses remained greater than the Chandler Street store could support. So they established a second store in 2005, this one at 18 Lyman St. in the Westboro Shopping Center.

“I know there’s a perception that Westboro was the nail in the coffin, but it wasn’t,” Mr. Abramoff said. “It was our chance to make it work. We had an overhead structure that could support triple our sales at little or no extra cost. Even if Westboro did half or less business than Chandler Street, we could do well.”

At first, they were going to close at both locations. But Eugene S. Colangelo, the Westboro businessman who had leased them the Lyman Street space, purchased the assets and has continued to operate the store as Tatnuck Bookseller. Mr. Abramoff kept working through July to help out.

“They kept me on while I figured out the rest of my life,” he said. “I didn’t have it in me to manage the store.”

Yet gradually, the Abramoffs’ lives have taken shape again.

“Like Gloria said, `It’s back to school,’” Mr. Abramoff declared.

The Abramoffs have found ways to compensate for losses and take advantage of their spare time.

Accustomed to an endless supply of books, they now borrow from the public library. Mr. Abramoff indulges his newspaper habit; he scours the Telegram & Gazette and The New York Times every morning. Too many mistakes, he said. And he has taken up cooking, tackling such dishes as Garlic Black Pepper Lobster with Lemongrass Fried Rice.

The Abramoffs had been on the advisory board of the Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester. Last fall, Mrs. Abramoff, a longtime birder, volunteered to help Deborah Cary, the director, expand the gift shop and set up a satellite store at the Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary in Princeton. Her husband offered his assistance, as well.

“Their experience in retail design and book buying has been extremely helpful,” Ms. Cary said. “After their redesign, every time someone came in, they would say, `Wow, this looks so great.’”

Mr. Abramoff, 55, became a member of the Worcester Zoning Board of Appeals in January and has been studying land use regulations. “It’s just learning all over again,” he said. “It’s incredibly interesting and engaging.”

In February, Mrs. Abramoff, 54, returned to work as the book buyer for her former store in Westboro. She spends three days a week talking with sales representatives, looking over inventory reports and making purchases.

“I’m really enjoying being the buyer and only the buyer,” Mrs. Abramoff said. “It’s so much fun having people show you what’s coming out in the coming season, what’s great. I feel like I won the lottery. There was a small learning curve, and it’s endlessly interesting.”

“Really, what matters is, `What’s a good book for Larry?’” her husband chimed in with a grin.

Mr. Abramoff, who has a contractor’s license, is overseeing the renovation of the Chandler Street building. He is installing solar panels and other environmentally sound elements and has leased much of the space to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

At one point, Mr. Abramoff said, the couple talked about opening another bookstore. His wife suggested they call it The Full Circle Bookstore. “It doesn’t make sense, not today,” he said.

Some people are still giving the business a try, however. Since Tatnuck closed, the number of independent bookstores has remained steady at 2,000, according to the American Booksellers Association, a national trade association. What might surprise people is that 200 new bookstores have opened in the last two years, said ABA spokeswoman Meg Z. Smith.

“There has always been a lot of churn in the business; they come and go, as they do in every field,” Ms. Smith said. “It’s really understanding how to distinguish themselves as an interesting, personal place to shop, with fabulous customer service – wonderful recommendations and wonderful events. It is not a business that is going to be extinct.”

The Abramoffs are skeptical about Ms. Smith’s assessment.

“I don’t think any of those places will make much financial sense,” Mrs. Abramoff said. “It’s an awful lot of work to do this endless programming. There’s so much available online.”

“The finances don’t work,” Mr. Abramoff asserted. “It’s a service to the community,”

On another spring morning, Mr. Abramoff slipped into a booth at Bagel & Friends on June Street and ordered eggs and toast. He was dressed in jeans, a red T-shirt and a navy blue baseball cap.

He said he is uncertain what his next step will be, but is confident that something suitable will come along.

“I’d love to be a temporary CFO,” he remarked.

The subject turned to his cap, which was inscribed with “Mr. Whippy” and a humorous cartoon figure of a soft-serve ice cream cone. He had purchased the hat at a Mr. Whippy ice cream joint in Maryland.

Mr. Abramoff brightened and laughed.

“I could sell odd hats,” he said. “I should start a business.”

He jotted a note to himself in a small notebook he keeps handy.

“It’s all about the story,” he explained as his thoughts on retail sales spun out. “I like to read stories. I find my speaking is most cogent when I can tell stories.”

He paused and added, “I used to sell stories.”