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A eulogy for an Amherst landmark, A.J. Hastings

Change can break your heart. Our beloved Hastings closed exactly 108 years to the day that Asa Hastings first opened shop. For nearly every day since that opening, Hastings anchored downtown Amherst.

Hastings was more than a store. It’s where local teenagers worked their first jobs, sorting sections of the Sunday The New York Times in the workroom with the creaky floor. It’s where newly minted college graduates framed diplomas before leaving town. And it’s where generations of kids carefully chose candy — not the big bars — but small, dazzling, individual pieces devoured on staircase steps in back.

I loved Hastings’ variety. In addition to greeting cards and pen refills you couldn’t find anywhere else, there were exotic Blackwing pencils, Wiffle Ball bats, harmonicas, and topographical maps of the Quabbin.

I spent hours studying sketch pads. Should I buy one of those Blackwings and try my hand at cartooning? You bet I did.

Pleasant Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, circa 1934.
Courtesy of the Jones Library, Inc.
Pleasant Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, circa 1934.

It seems fitting that the store’s forerunner occupied the same location as another iconic Amherst business. In the 19th century, Adams Brothers Bookshop sold Webster’s new dictionary, and Emily Dickinson’s father bought one for the family. For the poet, the bookshop was as much a part of daily life as Hastings was today. And maybe — like us — she thought such a vital part of the community would go on forever.

Before the owners’ retirement, I made one final trip to Hastings. I bought my favorite pens, Dickinson postcards, and a pack of zinnia seeds. Next summer, when I spill those seeds into the ground, I’ll think about what the store meant to me.

I never made a quick transaction there. I chatted with staff, told myself I shouldn’t buy an Archie comic book — but it was my birthday, so I did. I lingered over the candy counter and chose a Tootsie Roll.

And I never left without feeling better, like I had leaned over the fence and visited with a good neighbor for a while.

Commentator Martha Ackmann is a writer who lives in Leverett, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is "These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson."

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