Restless Books sets up shop in Amherst: Independent publisher started in New York City finds a new home in the Valley

Grace Talusan, a Filipino American writer, won a Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for her memoir “The Body Papers.” One critic calls the book “an extraordinary portrait of the artist as survivor.”

Grace Talusan, a Filipino American writer, won a Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for her memoir “The Body Papers.” One critic calls the book “an extraordinary portrait of the artist as survivor.”

Priyanka Champaneri, an Indian American writer, won a Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for her novel “The City of Good Death.” Publishers Weekly calls the book an “epic, magical story of death [that] teems with life.”

Priyanka Champaneri, an Indian American writer, won a Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for her novel “The City of Good Death.” Publishers Weekly calls the book an “epic, magical story of death [that] teems with life.”

Ilan Stavans, publisher of Restless Books and a longtime professor at Amherst College, says he’s thrilled to bring the company, which is dedicated to international writing, to Amherst.

Ilan Stavans, publisher of Restless Books and a longtime professor at Amherst College, says he’s thrilled to bring the company, which is dedicated to international writing, to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Authors Ani Gjika, left, and Grace Talusan sign copies of their award-winning Restless Book titles for Dean Cycon of Leverett during the recent opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst. Gjika is the author of “An Unruled Body” and Talusan of “The Body Papers.”

Authors Ani Gjika, left, and Grace Talusan sign copies of their award-winning Restless Book titles for Dean Cycon of Leverett during the recent opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst. Gjika is the author of “An Unruled Body” and Talusan of “The Body Papers.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Community members gathered recently for the opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst. The independent, nonprofit publisher is dedicated to international writing.

Community members gathered recently for the opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst. The independent, nonprofit publisher is dedicated to international writing. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Amherst College professor Lloyd Barba reads “The Mexican Dreidel” to his 2-year-old son, Daniel, at Restless Books. The story, by Linda Elovitz Marshall and Ilan Stavans, has a main character, Danielito, who’s based on Daniel.

Amherst College professor Lloyd Barba reads “The Mexican Dreidel” to his 2-year-old son, Daniel, at Restless Books. The story, by Linda Elovitz Marshall and Ilan Stavans, has a main character, Danielito, who’s based on Daniel. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Restless Books, now over 10 years old, has added children’s titles to its catalog, including “Daniel and Ismail,” a story about a Jewish boy and a Palestinian boy who bond on a soccer field. The book is presented in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Restless Books, now over 10 years old, has added children’s titles to its catalog, including “Daniel and Ismail,” a story about a Jewish boy and a Palestinian boy who bond on a soccer field. The book is presented in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Restless Books’ “Popol Vuh: A Retelling” is a prose retelling of the Maya myth of creation, written by Ilan Stavans, the company’s publisher and a prolific writer of many genres. The story is illustrated by Salvadoran folk artist Gabriela Larios and introduced by author, diplomat, and environmental activist Homero Aridjis.

Restless Books’ “Popol Vuh: A Retelling” is a prose retelling of the Maya myth of creation, written by Ilan Stavans, the company’s publisher and a prolific writer of many genres. The story is illustrated by Salvadoran folk artist Gabriela Larios and introduced by author, diplomat, and environmental activist Homero Aridjis. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Ilan Stavans, publisher of Restless Books and a longtime professor at Amherst College, says he’s thrilled to bring the company, which is dedicated to international writing, to Amherst.

Ilan Stavans, publisher of Restless Books and a longtime professor at Amherst College, says he’s thrilled to bring the company, which is dedicated to international writing, to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Restless Books, which started in Brooklyn, New York, now will be primarily based in Amherst, where the company has also opened its first retail setting.

Restless Books, which started in Brooklyn, New York, now will be primarily based in Amherst, where the company has also opened its first retail setting. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Ilan Stavans, speaking at the recent opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst, says the independent publishing company “is a good fit for the landscape here.”

Ilan Stavans, speaking at the recent opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst, says the independent publishing company “is a good fit for the landscape here.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Ilan Stavans, speaking at the recent opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst, says the independent publishing company “is a good fit for the landscape here.”

Ilan Stavans, speaking at the recent opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst, says the independent publishing company “is a good fit for the landscape here.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Priscilla Lee, from left, Pauline Bissell and Héloïse Schep applaud while Ilan Stavans speaks during the recent opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst.

Priscilla Lee, from left, Pauline Bissell and Héloïse Schep applaud while Ilan Stavans speaks during the recent opening celebration of Restless Books in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

New kid in a literary town: People peruse the shelves of Restless Books in Amherst during the recent opening celebration of the independent publisher’s Valley locale.

New kid in a literary town: People peruse the shelves of Restless Books in Amherst during the recent opening celebration of the independent publisher’s Valley locale. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

New kid in a literary town: Restless Books, which has operated in Brooklyn, New York for the past decade, has opened a new office space, and its first retail operation, in Amherst.

New kid in a literary town: Restless Books, which has operated in Brooklyn, New York for the past decade, has opened a new office space, and its first retail operation, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

New kid in a literary town: Restless Books, which has operated in Brooklyn, New York for the past decade, has opened a new office space, and its first retail operation, in Amherst.

New kid in a literary town: Restless Books, which has operated in Brooklyn, New York for the past decade, has opened a new office space, and its first retail operation, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Ilan Stavans, publisher of Restless Books and a longtime professor at Amherst College, says he’s thrilled to bring the company, which is dedicated to international writing, to Amherst.

Ilan Stavans, publisher of Restless Books and a longtime professor at Amherst College, says he’s thrilled to bring the company, which is dedicated to international writing, to Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 12-09-2023 1:11 PM

A bit over 10 years ago, Ilan Stavans, the longtime Amherst College professor and writer, made his first venture into the business world: starting a publishing company dedicated to international writing.

Restless Books, whose tagline is “an international publisher for a world in motion,” began under modest circumstances, with digital releases, a small editorial team based in Brooklyn, New York, and Stavans working mostly from Massachusetts.

But within a few years, the company began publishing print editions and expanding its catalog — and now it’s come home, so to speak, opening an office and small retail store in Amherst.

The new space, at 69 Main Street, a few doors down from the Black Sheep Deli, offers some comfy armchairs for perusing work from the Restless Books catalog, stacked along one wall. Desks for a number of staff members, including the publisher’s senior editor and managing editor, are sited on the other side of the room.

In a recent phone call, Stavans said the nonprofit company had not been able to open any retail space in Brooklyn, so being able to locate a spot for that in Amherst “is really gratifying.”

“It’s not a conventional bookstore, in that we’re not selling books from other publishers,” he said. “But just to have a place here in Amherst where you can walk in and look at the work we’ve published, I’m thrilled that’s happened … I think it’s a good fit for the landscape here.”

Restless Books, which retains office space and some staff in Brooklyn, has now published almost 150 books, in various formats including audiobooks, by 120 authors, Stavans notes. And those authors — emerging ones as well as Nobel Prize winners — hail from over 40 countries, including Japan, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Chile, Finland, Poland, Israel and Bangladesh, among others.

To do that, Restless has relied on some 95 translators to transform books written in close to 30 different languages — Arabic, German, Estonian, Finnish, Icelandic, Mandarin, Persian, Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew — into English.

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“That’s been our mission — to bring different voices to readers here and in other English-speaking countries,” said Stavans, a native of Mexico.

Indeed, as Stavans has noted in some past Gazette interviews, he and other writers, publishers and teachers have long been troubled that only about 3% of books published annually in the United States are works translated from other languages, given much of the book industry has been dominated by corporate publishers.

“I would go on NPR and complain about this all the time,” he previously told the Gazette. “You know, ‘How can we broaden our readership, make it less parochial?’ After I turned 50, I started thinking maybe I should actually try to do something about it.”

Given the manner in which modern communications have broken down many barriers in the world, Stavans and his original co-founders of Restless Books believed some American readers would also be interested in literature and other works that “speak to us across linguistic and cultural borders,” as the publisher’s website puts it.

“We seek extraordinary international literature for adults and young readers that feeds our restlessness: our hunger for new perspectives, passion for other cultures and languages, and eagerness to explore beyond the confines of the familiar.”

That’s a goal that’s animated much of Stavans’ own work. He’s taught a wide range of subjects at Amherst College, including Latin American and Latino Culture, and as a writer he’s frequently explored cross-cultural and immigrant themes, in a wide variety of formats: essays, literary criticism, travelogues, fiction and graphic novels that have been translated into 20 languages.

Small but intimate

Today, he says, some studies suggest there’s been a decline in overall readership in the country in the past decade. Yet he believes writers from other countries have found more of a foothold here during that time. Meantime, longstanding book competitions such as the National Book Awards have introduced a category for translated works.

The steady growth of Restless Books would seem to speak to those changes. The company has expanded its list of authors while also publishing a wider variety of work, from various types of fiction to memoirs, nonfiction, poetry, theater and travel books.

Restless has also started a children’s division, Yonder, for work ranging from picture books to Young Adult fiction, and it issues new editions of literary classics such as “Don Quixote” and “Frankenstein,” designed in particular for underrepresented audiences.

Most notably, the publisher offers an annual $10,000 prize for the best manuscript in English about the immigrant experience, alternating between fiction and nonfiction. One winner was Grace Talusan, a Filipino American writer whose memoir “The Body Papers” also won a Massachusetts Book Award in 2020 for nonfiction.

In an email, Talusan said winning the Restless Books prize “changed my life in all the best ways … Before I won the prize, I was on the other side of a closed door. With my book in the world … I’ve been able to step through multiple doors that I never imagined were open to me.”

And, Talusan noted, she now has a real “a sense of belonging with the people I’ve met through Restless Books. It’s not only a publishing house, but a community … I feel a deep connection to some of the other immigrant prize winners.”

Stavans says having Restless Books’ main operation here in Amherst will not only make it easier for him to be involved in the business, it will also allow for interns from the Five College system to be part of the company.

“I’m looking forward to spending time in the office on a regular basis,” he said.

And simply having another small bookstore in Amherst, he noted, seems a positive development. The death knell of independent bookstores was sounded some years back, he notes, but despite the normal ups and downs of business, many are thriving today, and independent publishers have increased as well.

“There’s something to be said about small bookstores and small publishers being part of building more intimate connections between people — between writers, readers, everyone involved in bringing books into the world,” he said. “It’s a way to slow down and take in more.”

And as Stavans writes in the new Restless Books catalog, the Amherst space was once “a barbershop and before that, a student laundry. I imagine customers in both enjoying an abundance of stories, at once intimate and significant, while getting a haircut or washing their clothes.

“It seems fitting to me,” he adds, “that our books are now continuing those important conversations.”

More information on Restless Books can be found at restlessbooks.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.