MIDDLEBURGH – No town is complete without a bookstore, at least from the perspective of author Neil Gaiman.
“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul,” Gaiman wrote in “American Gods.”
W. Whitman Books, nestled in among the restaurants and shops on Middleburgh’s Main Street, completed the town just three years ago. Founded by Douglas Guevara and his late husband David Chancey, it’s filled with used and rare books, from literary classics to contemporary children’s books and beyond. Antiques and artwork fittingly dot the shop as well, and there is seating in the back along with room for community events and performances.
“The idea was this was going to be our retirement,” Guevara said. “[The name] W. Whitman Books because we loved Walt Whitman. He was a poet who transcended everything, sexually free, open arms to everybody. We felt that that represented the type of store we wanted to have.”
Guevara, who is a retired attorney, and Chancey moved upstate with their two children after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
“We sold the house in Brooklyn. It all happened all at once. We brought the kids back, they started school, and then we were integrated into the community,” Guevara said.
Guevara worked at the New York State Bar Association. Chancey looked after their sons Matthew and Benjamin and became a community leader in everything from cub scouts to the school board. Both had a longstanding love for reading and, after they retired, they purchased and renovated the space at 304 Main Street, turning it into W. Whitman Books.
“It’s a haven from the outside world. The color scheme was meant to relax [people]. I usually have music on. It’ll be a mixture of anything from jazz to country to folk, depending on how the crowd is. It seems to calm people down,” Guevara said.
Many are looking for just such a place this year, which has also been a stressful one in part because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s also had a major impact on the shop, as it was closed from March to August.
“With COVID it’s been really difficult. We always get drive-throughs from downstate [and] locals come in but it’s been a tough go,” Guevara said.
Before the pandemic, the family also suffered a major loss. After suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Chancey died last year. Since then, Guevara has been largely running the shop on his own, though his sons help out here and there. Despite the challenges, he has no plans to stop, if anything he plans to expand.
“This was our dream so it’s going to go on,” Guevara said.
Over the last few years, the store has certainly gained a following, not only within the local community but online. Guevara posts a poem or song lyrics each day on the store’s Facebook page, which has more than 1,600 followers.
“I did a breakdown and I have people from India, from Paris, from all over,” Guevara said.
The poems are often paired with a bit of commentary from Guevara, and they tend to generate discussions, with some people commenting with their own interpretations or of their memories and experiences with the poems.
Guevara hopes to bring more of that sort of dialogue into the shop, which features art exhibitions from local artists and, before the pandemic, featured monthly concerts.
“We fill about 20, 25 people. We’ll have a 90-minute concert. We’ve had Tracy Grammer, other acts like Missy Andersen and her One-Man Band,” Guevara said, “It’s a more intimate setting where there’s a connection with the audience. I’ll take a chance on somebody who’s young and they come in and they just ‘wow’ everybody.”
While the concerts have been on hold, he and several other community members have been developing a program featuring Shakespeare’s songs. They hope to present the bard’s songs with actors, a reading and live music.
“I’m working toward not only bringing back the music in March, April but also bringing in a series of poetry readings surrounding the New York State project ‘My Favorite Poem,’” Guevara said.
Sometime in the spring, he plans to ask people for poems that have struck a chord with them, and if they feel comfortable, they can also share a photo of themselves. He’ll place the poems and photos in a display at the shop as another way to connect people through poetry.
“Ultimately, when we’re back on track, it’ll be a cultural center of music, art and drama,” Guevara said.
W. Whitman Books is located at 304 Main Street, Middleburgh. For hours and more information, including poems, visit W. Whitman Books on Facebook.