Island writers are expressing sympathy and sadness for the loss, they hope only temporarily, of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven that was devastated by fire on July 4.
“The Bunch of Grapes is the personification of the world of books,” West Tisbury author David G. McCullough said. “There’s always been something for everyone in Ann Nelson’s bookstore. There are new books and then there are the classics that are on summer reading lists. It’s always been wonderful to be able to find the books you should have read or have read and would like to read again at Ann’s bookstore. She has succeeded on a small scale with what Barnes & Noble and the other chains do on a large scale.
“When you watch TV, the editors have decided which stories are put on your screen. When you go to a bookstore like the Bunch of Grapes you are making your own choice and you get to know far more than ever how books can invigorate you.
“When I first put my toe in the water as a writer,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author continued, “I thought the kinds of readers you got was dependent on the publisher you had and on the reviews your book got, but what is much more important, I have learned, is that the reader sees the books to chose from. It’s in the store like the Bunch of Grapes with a rich selection of books that that happens.
“If there should be no Bunch of Grapes, where would Vineyard Haven’s Main street be?”
But Mr. McCullough added that he had faith the store would recover. “If I had to take a covered wagon across the country, I’d want Ann Nelson right on board because if things got complicated and difficult, she’d know how to get through. She’ll know how to get through this, too.”
“The small privately owned bookstore is such a vanishing treasure in America,” West Tisbury novelist John T. Hough Jr. said. “The loss of the bookstore is terrible for writers as well as readers. I have a new book coming out, Carry Me Home — a Civil War novel with three Vineyard boys in it and lots of Vineyard scenes. Ann Nelson has always been so wonderful about promoting Island authors. I was looking forward to doing readings at the bookstore and being able to say that this scene or that from the book would have taken place just up the street.”
“It’s absolutely crucial that the Bunch of Grapes be reborn,” West Tisbury nonfiction writer and former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis said. “Having a bookstore in Vineyard Haven that really focused on Island authors and did so much for them and their books was so wonderful.”
Chilmark photographer Peter Simon, who annually produces The Vineyard Calendar, said he could hardly imagine how great a loss the Island’s literary community will suffer without the Bunch of Grapes. “Of the 7,500 calendars I had printed last year, 1,800 of them were sold at the Bunch of Grapes. The fire has led to a horrible, heartbreaking loss — a huge seismic shift for the whole of Vineyard Haven. But I do think that Ann and [her son] Jon Nelson are survivors and that one way or another we are going to have the Bunch of Grapes back.”
“The fire was shattering news,” young people’s author Judy Blume of Vineyard Haven said. “The year 1983 was my first summer on the Vineyard and my daughter got a job at the Bunch of Grapes and introduced us to the bookstore and to Ann. One afternoon I was autographing there and Ann’s mother, Peg Littlefield, was serving lemonade and cookies to the children. I don’t know how often I’ve told that story to other booksellers and they just don’t believe it.
“Anytime we had guests come to the Island, no matter what age they were, they would want to go down to the Bunch of Grapes and browse,” Judy Blume added. There’s always been something in that bookstore for every age and every interest.
“Like so many other Island authors, I was scheduled for a book-signing this summer for the third in a series of books I have done. This one is Going, Going, Gone! With the Pain and the Great One. The loss of that bookstore is simply tremendous!”
Vineyard Haven writer Sheldon Hackney, whose Magnolias Without Moonlight came out in 2003 and was heralded with a Bunch of Grapes book event, lauds the store as “a center of the community in a way that I think people don’t realize. We have all depended on it not only for its books but for periodicals, for Vineyard history and news. The readings they have held there have made the Bunch of Grapes an Island intellectual center.”
“For me, the loss of the Bunch of Grapes is a real personal disaster,” West Tisbury novelist Ward Just, whose latest book, Forgetfulness, came out last summer said. “I don’t own a computer so Amazon is closed to me. I’ve always gone down to the Bunch of Grapes when I needed a book and they have ordered it for me. Losing the Bunch of Grapes from Vineyard Haven’s Main street is like losing Tiffany’s from New York’s Fifth Avenue.
“Ann Nelson has been so wonderful and supportive of Island writers. A tourist could come here and be perfectly well entertained by doing nothing but showing up and listening to the writers’ programs the Bunch of Grapes has offered every week. Considering our year-round population of a little under 16,000, it’s absolutely remarkable that we have had such a bookstore,” Mr. Ward said.
“I grew up in the Bunch of Grapes,” West Tisbury novelist Nicole Galland said. “I still have The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster that Jules Feiffer illustrated and that I got at the Bunch of Grapes when I was 10 years old. Then, when I wrote my first book, The Fool’s Tale, Harper Collins, my publisher, wanted me to go on tour to New York and California with it. Of course I said I would, but I said only if my first book event was at the Bunch of Grapes right here on Martha’s Vineyard.
“This past May, they held an event for my third book, Crossed, and I was sent an inter-office memo from Harper Collins about it. In it, it referred to the Bunches of Grapes. I called them up and said it wasn’t ‘Bunches,’ but ‘Bunch’ and I thought they should know that, even though they had just made the mistake on an in-house memorandum. Right away they apologized, replying that, of course they should have known better. After all, they said, ‘The Bunch of Grapes is one of the most famous bookstores in America!’”
For Oak Bluffs children’s author Kate Feiffer, whose first book came out in 2000, the Bunch of Grapes, for a young aspiring author, was “a place where you could be queen for a day.
“It was absolutely magical somehow to be having a book signing there when I was a first-time writer. The Bunch of Grapes is probably the place I learned to read since I grew up summers here. It has always been such a warm, comforting environment.”
Ms. Feiffer had been looking forward to a signing this summer for her book President Pennybaker. The Chilmark Library will take over the August 16 event; other Island libraries, in Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury, will be taking over other events that had been planned for the Bunch of Grapes.
West Tisbury cartoonist Jules Feiffer said, for him, the fire-forced closing of the Bunch of Grapes was like a loss in the family. “It has always been far more than simply a community bookstore. It’s been fun to walk through the shelves. It’s been marvellous, after the movies let out, to be able to go across the street and delve among the books. I hope Ann and Jon will be able to do something inventive and creative soon so we have our Bunch of Grapes back.”
Chilmark centenarian poet and novelist Margaret Freydberg whose books of poetry, novels and memoir, Growing Up in Old Age, have long been on Bunch of Grapes bookshelves, credited the store with having fostered her career “wonderfully and warmly.
“How I do hope we’ll soon have the Bunch of Grapes again!”