On the last Thursday evening of October, I entered Holyoke's White Rose Book Store on High Street for what would be the last time. It was half an hour before its monthly community conversation. The only occupants of the space at the time were James Maloney, an old high school friend, also a writer and volunteer for Hope for Holyoke Recovery Center, and the store's co-owners, Betty Kaplowitz and Kristen Bachler, who sat at a round wooden table, discussing the politics of the town. The walls were lined with shelves of numerous titles spanning the gamut from politics to economics and philosophy. There was a spot towards the back for getting hot coffee and tea.
Soon, Maloney started reading from a book by a Native American poet, and shared his passion for the written word. Not long afterwards, other guests started trickling in, many frequent visitors, others not so frequent. They came from different cultural backgrounds. Some lived in Holyoke their whole lives, others were new to the former paper and textile mill hub, including Nao Sakurai, who moved to Holyoke partly because of the White Rose, and Hannah Pollan, who returned to Holyoke after time in Brazil.
“It was a place where I really liked to talk a lot, and I felt really at home here," said Pollan.
“This is the biggest community conversation we’ve had,” said Kaplowitz.
The White Rose Book Store was a hub of community conversation, coffee, and provocative books, including “The CIA’s Greatest Hits,” a collection of cartoons about the Central Intelligence Agency’s not-so-finest moments.
Charlie Cavagnac, a Holyoke resident of 86 years, praised the store as a place for discussion of social issues and ideas.
“The ordinary person, they get up, go to work, then go home and watch TV. They don't get interested in politics or social events or anything like that. I think this is great that we have this little group where we can discuss things that are going on and that aren't going on, things that should be going on.”
Apart from the sale of books, it hosted monthly community conversations about the issues facing the city and the country, as well as hosted Valley authors such as Reminder Publications’ managing editor G. Michael Dobbs and participants of Voices from the Inside/Out, which “offers performances and readings designed to bring the stories of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to the public.”
According to Kaplowitz and Bachler, the White Rose was born out of two factors; the first was a love for the city of Holyoke, although they were still fairly new to the area.
“There are two things that I love about downtown Holyoke,” said Kaplowitz. “One is walking around in it. It feels like a European city. It's small, you can walk around the canals . . . the other thing was the diversity.”
“We loved the fact that it was ethnically diverse,” said Bachler, “that you heard Spanish more often than English in some places."
“We felt that there was so much potential in this city, and I don't think that we've ever been any place in our lives where people loved their city more than they love Holyoke . . . and there has to be something special about a city that people love that much.”
The owners also founded the White Rose out of their commitment to social justice.
“My mother grew up really poor,” said Bachler in a film by [I’M] Nobody Productions about the White Rose and its owners. "Even though she had white privilege, she grew up really poor. She lived in a chicken coop most of her life and worked her way through school, through college. She taught me from a very young age that I had to be responsible about the privileges that I had. You know, she taught me that there was a lot of things to fight for, and that you can’t just sit around and say, well, I’m a lucky one. You have to say other people aren’t so lucky until they’re just as lucky as me. I have to be in the streets too.”
Running a book store in downtown Holyoke was an uphill battle from the start, with a stigma about downtown Holyoke being an area for crime and violence, when the FBI's 2014 Uniform Crime Report cited by masslive.com indicated that crime rates have actually gone down in Holyoke between 2013 and 2014.
“When we had [Holyoke's] gay pride parade,” said Kaplowitz, “the high school students were afraid to gather . . . [They said], 'We don't go down below Beech Street. It's too dangerous.' And we go, “What are you talking about? Who told you this?”
"In the past three years that we've been down here," said Kaplowitz in a follow-up phone interview, "I haven't really seen much of that . . . I had to convince some of my Northampton friends to come to the community events at the book store because they thought downtown was a bad place to go. When they finally came to the area, they said, "Eh, this place isn't so bad."
“[One local landlord],” said Kaplowitz, “came in and said we needed to get downtown Holyoke jumpstarted, and he wanted to turn it into an X-Zone like in Springfield," a "combat zone," as Sarah Krohn, a writer of activism and a Holyoke resident of 8 years, put it. This likely referred to the areas in Springfield that are home to seedy night locations such as "gentlemen's clubs."
The presence of the Holyoke Mall did not help, either.
“I read some of the history,” said Krohn, “and maybe the people who grew up here could tell me more, but when the mall came, [High Street] used to be very busy, but then the mall took everything.”
Not everyone was willing to peek under the cover of the White Rose, especially since e-readers became more prevalent.
“Kindle and Nook are what's going on now,” said Cavagnac. “Why go to a book store when you have a book store right in your hands?”
Also, according to Maloney’s father, John, a part-time student at Holyoke Community College, younger generations are being exposed to Twitter and Facebook, which are conducive to a short attention span.
“My high school teacher . . . was the one who turned me on to reading a book from the first page to the last page, but that’s not what children are getting today.”
An issue with attracting area youth, according to Hillary Pollan, a young Holyoke resident who fell in love with the city when volunteering as a student at Mt. Holyoke College, “the idea of walking through a door into a space that you don't know anything about is intimidating.”
It is also hard to bring newcomers to High Street businesses when a cultural divide exists in the city, with the Hispanic community concentrated primarily downtown, and the Caucasian community in the uptown.
Kaplowitz explains, “We went to city hall back when that whole brouhaha happened with the rest of Holyoke thinking Morse changed his mind about casinos (which he did not, but that's off topic), there. So I said to Kristen, perhaps a little too loudly, 'I've not seen this many white people downtown since we've moved here.'
"People from the rest of Holyoke seem to not know that downtown Holyoke exist. They only came down here when it was something to do with their neighborhoods."
What may have ultimately been the most significant hinderance was the question of selling enough books to run the space. Kaplowitz acknowledged that her prices would not be able to compete with Amazon's.
Individuals who want to support smaller, more locally-owned businesses may not be able to afford it, either. The state minimum wage is currently at 9 dollars an hour.
According to data on quickfacts.census.gov, between 31.5 percent of the Holyoke population lived below the poverty level, and "[t]he current unemployment rate for Holyoke is 7.5% in September 2015."
"We had this meeting with business owners on High Street, and one of them who sells cheap clothes said that he would like to sell other things, but the people who go in there is primarily the Puerto Rican Community, which is poor, and [cheap clothing] is what they can afford, at which point I looked at my books and I said, ‘Uh Oh!’”
“If there were more blue collar jobs here,” said Krohn, “there would be a lot more money to spend. Try living on welfare. It's only $350 a month. Even with food stamps, it's difficult.”
While the book store may be closing, Kaplowitz and Bachler are only turning the page to the White Rose’s next chapter.
“We’ve decided that we are going to host community conversations and events wherever we can” said Kaplowitz.
“We’re going mobile,” joked Maloney.