Sam Burton, owner of Grey Matter Books

Brace Your Shelves

A few of the shelves at Grey Matter Books, a two-month-old shop on York Street near Elm, are still empty, but that’s because owner Sam Burton is still looking for just the right books to fill his cases—and because books are always heading back out the door. When shoppers come in to browse, he hopes they’ll find that “almost every book has something going for it, and you’re not going to see it in every bookstore.”

Behind the counter are first editions, hard-to-find scholarly books, books on books and art books that are beautiful objects in their own right. A walk through the shop, with its parquet and plank wood floors and rich, studious ambience (most recently a Jack Wills clothing store), reveals categories both familiar—drama and film, social science, literature, mystery—and surprising—for example, an abundance of books on ancient Egypt, bought from the collection of a retired staff Egyptologist from the Brooklyn Museum. “I have another, like, 500 books on Egyptology and archaeology and ancient civilizations,” Burton says. On the other hand, you won’t find too much popular fiction of the moment. “I’m looking for the that are, as objects, appealing and then, as content, kind of timeless,” Burton says, before adding with a grin, “—or at least trendy now.”

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An experienced book buyer and seller, Burton has worked at bookstores in New York and San Francisco and the legendary Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. He spent time in Philadelphia as a book scout for Powell’s, then, with the arrival of the Internet, began selling books online. A decade ago, when that “got boring and alienating,” he opened the first Grey Matter store in Hadley, Massachusetts. Located in a rural setting, that store is still in operation and is hailed effusively by customers on Yelp as offering up the “best poetry selection anywhere on the planet” and “the essential facts of life.”

Burton says his book buying is “dictated by experience rather than aesthetics,” though a perusal of the “Selling Your Books” page on Grey Matter’s website suggests a few particular leanings. “We have an abiding disdain for the practical,” it instructs. “Even worse than the practical is the general.” On the other hand, “The Always and Near-Always Want List” gives a fuller picture of what you’ll find at Grey Matter: books of 20th-century poetry; Western philosophy and cultural theory; the occult and “esoteric religious traditions”; physics and mathematics; art/photography; Greek and Roman classics; history including military, Colonial US, the Medieval and Renaissance periods and the Great Awakening; New England and, just to break the “no practical books” dictum, raising chickens and keeping bees. Says Burton, “My biggest fear is just things being bland.”

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Setting up shop in New Haven seems to be one way to keep things interesting. Burton says he’s enjoying the proximity of takeout lunch and the hubbub of the city on the days he’s not in Hadley. As we talk, traffic churns and passersby stop at the $1 book cart outside. Many others step in to take a look around and leave with purchases. A couple whom Burton already seems to know rolls in with four or five large-format art books on a collapsible cart. Burton spends a few minutes discussing the books and pricing them on the spot, then makes a purchase of his own. He’s met most of his friends through the Hadley Grey Matter, he says later. The same seems to be starting to happen here on York Street.

All this foot traffic is heartening, a sign that perhaps the death knell of the local bookshop at the hands of the Internet was premature or even wrong. “When I was at Powell’s, the owner of it, Michael Powell, had this idea that he was going to put all the books on the Internet,” Burton says, harkening back to the early ’90s before he, himself, had become an Internet bookseller, “and I told him no one would ever buy a book on the Internet.” Burton laughs and admits he was “totally wrong,” and yet, “I get my point, in a way.”

After all, there’s nothing quite like being able to browse the deepest shelves of a good bookstore, pick up a book and leaf through it, or even dig through the “dross,” as Burton calls it, to get to that rare treasure. “It really only is in Niantic that you still get that fun thing of, you know, maybe if you sort through enough bad books you could find a really great book and it would be four dollars,” he says, referring to The Book Barn, which stocks 500,000 books in four locations. “You used to be able to have that experience in every town in America,” he says with more than a small dose of nostalgia. “There was a sport to it. You never knew what you would find.”

In a changed landscape, some might say opening up a used bookstore is an act of courage, if not folly, but Burton disputes that. “I do think there was sort of an overcorrection… and too many bookstores closed.”

“There’s still a demand for books,” he notes. Even—or especially—impractical ones.

Grey Matter Books
264 York St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun noon-6pm
(203) 553-3180

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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