Contrary to popular belief, America’s bookstores are not dying off.
Or at least, not all of them. Not the ones in New Hampshire run by the determined, business-savvy and creative entrepreneurs.
The proof? It’s in the upturn. It was apparent when Gibson’s Bookstore moved to a larger location in downtown Concord last summer, a space nearly triple the size of the original, and it was apparent when, the summer before, MainStreet BookEnds, in partnership with MainStreet Warner, Inc., opened a marketplace, art gallery and park amphitheater on the business’s grounds.
Farther east, Portsmouth’s RiverRun Bookstore opened a second location in Kittery, Maine, and started its own independent publishing company. Farther north, Chris and Anna Miner felt the business was strong enough to take the plunge and purchase New London’s Morgan Hill Bookstore last July.
Why have these businesses found success in what’s been an uncertain time for many booksellers? Some will say it’s about creating a community center, a place where people can go to talk with other book lovers or just meet for coffee; others will say it’s because of the serendipity that comes with shopping in a bookstore. Throwing locally made coffee, toys, games and chocolate into the mix doesn’t hurt, either.
But the story about New Hampshire’s modern bookselling culture isn’t really in the why it’s working. The far more intriguing story is in the how — in the innovation, the partnerships, the product knowledge (one local bookseller boasts reading 250 titles a year) and, most importantly, in the passion required to thrive against the world’s book giants.
Yes, there have been many bookstores, very recently and over the past 15 years, that have gone out of business. Borders, which operated 511 U.S. superstores in 2010, filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Its rival, Barnes & Noble, bought Borders’ brand name, website and customer loyalty list.
In 2012, the Hippo covered the closure of Annie’s Book Stop in Manchester, a tiny used bookshop on Mammoth Road run by a woman named Nancy Mitchell, who blamed the downfall of the store on the electronic age.
A year before Annie’s departure, Lee’s Spot, another used bookstore, tucked in a nook next to the CVS on Elm Street, closed its doors as well.
It’s a story that’s been told many times over the past 20 years.
And so, in this wake of this bookselling calamity, many of the area’s bookstores tried new fight plans. Those who didn’t act quickly enough or didn’t have the correct resources didn’t make it.
Some booksellers, like Michael Herrmann of Gibson’s Bookstore, say it’s just business.
“I don’t think it’s a question of survival,” Herrmann said in a phone interview. “The trick is to do an excellent job. … The question should be, how do you make a really good bookstore that people want to come back to?”
He thinks there’s been an oversimplification in the media.
“In retail, the media gets a certain narrative that tries to explain everything that’s happening. But the real truth is that retail businesses come and go all of the time. It doesn’t mean the industry is in danger,” Herrmann said. “It just means that one didn’t work out.”
Concord got a taste of this when, last August, Gibson’s expanded — big time.
What you’ll find at 45 S. Main St. are aisles and aisles of books sectioned off in neat rows and categorized by author, subject and genre. The walls are all different colors, save one in the children’s area, which displays a bright mural by Maine artist Susan York. Hovering over the games, picture books and toys by Imagination Village are moon-jumping cows, a flying robotic cat and a painting of downtown Concord as seen from a distance.
The front of the store smells like coffee and bacon sandwiches. Thanks to the new cafe — run by True Brew Barista and also featuring items by Franz at Bread and Chocolate — the bookstore sees visitors like 15-year-old Delaney Collins, a Concord High School sophomore who recently sat sipping a coffee and studying for midterms. There wasn’t really room to do this at the old location, she said.
“When we expanded the one that we did, we illuminated that they’re [bookstores] actually not dying. People love to go to bookstores,” Herrmann said. “You wouldn’t believe how crowded we and every other bookstore in the area were in the weeks before Christmas.”
Challenges, shifting landscapes
Dan Chartrand, owner of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, agrees that there is, indeed, an upturn in bookselling.
“There are more stores opening. As we move toward the back end of the downtown, or rather, the beginning of the upturn, there’s more financing for start-up stores,” Chartrand said.
Lots of those potential entrepreneurs, he said, come from alternative backgrounds but are looking to go into independent bookselling because they want their work to be involved in the community.
Though Chartrand is not one of those people, he’d know; as many of the state’s bookstore owners are, he’s a member of the New England Independent Booksellers Association (newenglandbooks.org), of which the store’s events coordinator, Stef Kiper Schmidt, currently works on the advisory council. Chartrand also served on the board of the American Booksellers Association (bookweb.org) for three years.
He offered a brief overview about what the state’s booksellers have been going through the past 20 years in a 30-minute interview at the back of the store, which, on that particular Friday, was a feat.
To say it was a busy day would be an understatement, as the quaint, two-room bookshop, connected by a brick archway, was undergoing major structural changes that week. Schmidt was working the front of the store during the interview, greeting customers — by first name, no less — in the final hours before her three-month maternity leave. She’d spent the past several weeks arduously delegating her work to co-workers. The rest of the staff members, while readying themselves for Schmidt’s absence, were packing, taping and shipping back books that didn’t sell at Christmastime and scrambling to quickly learn the store’s brand-new inventory system, which had been installed the week prior.
Since Chartrand started the store, he said, bookselling has been changing. In the early and mid-’90s, it was all about the superstores.
“They wiped out a huge swath of independent bookstores that had been in existence for a while,” Chartrand said. “Then came the rise of Amazon in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which wiped out more stores and one of the two big chain superstores.”
This, in turn, changed the publishing industry forever.
“When I started in the book business in the ’80s, you could sell 5,000 copies of a book and call that a success. At the point of when the chain superstores came along, there was no room for that in the model. … Books had to sell 20, 30 thousand copies, which meant that those books that used to be published by trade publishers had to go to independent publishers and university presses.”
For about a decade, these superstores meant a huge overprinting of books, Chartrand said, because acres and acres of floor space had to be filled. So publishers would take back these books and re-sell them for pennies on the dollar.
“Frankly, now they sell things cheaper than I can get them from the publisher,” said Tom Holbrook, owner of RiverRun Bookstore. “Never mind the fact that in 2007, ebooks came onto the scene and in 2008, the economy collapsed.”
Ebooks and tablets are the new challenges facing bookselling. Add that to the fact that two of these tablets — the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook — are run by the big companies that put so many bookstores out of business before digital reading was even a thing, and you’ve got some major competition.
“You can feel the landscape shifting, and we need to shift accordingly,” said Katharine Nevins of MainStreet BookEnds in Warner.
One way to stay relevant, Nevins said, is to become a community center, a place that locals rely on. A successful bookstore, she said, is really one that reflects the community of where it exists.
“It’s what makes them exciting, diverse. Independent bookstores have the ability to capture a community better than a lot of other kinds of stores,” she said.
MainStreet Warner is perhaps one of the best examples of this. The quaint shop on Main Street is the cultural epicenter of the town, in part because of its founders’ efforts.
Nevins and her brother, Jim Mitchell, an anchor for WBZ news radio who was heavily involved with the town, opened the bookstore in the wake of Amazon’s surge, a risky time for any bookstore.
But MainStreet BookEnds was never going to be just a bookstore. Mitchell dreamed that the business would become a cultural center in Warner, and when he died five years ago, the community rallied together to make this dream happen. They created MainStreet Warner, Inc., a nonprofit aimed at furthering arts and education in Warner and creating the Jim Mitchell Community Park, which now houses a patio, a solar-powered amphitheater with a rainwater irrigation system, a garden, a marketplace and an art gallery on the bookstore’s grounds.
Though not every New Hampshire bookstore is partnered with a corresponding nonprofit, it’s not uncommon that these business owners become community leaders. Chartrand was recently elected on the Exeter’s Board of Selectmen. He joked — after admitting that this sounded extremely corny — that working as a bookstore owner in Exeter feels like how he imagines George Bailey felt at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life.
“We’re a fiercely independent bunch. We really take a lot of pride in running our businesses and helping the communities where we live. We give back to our community, and our community, in turn, supports us, keeps us here and really makes us what we are,” Nevins said.
If you stopped by MainStreet BookStore this summer, you probably saw this happening. The 13th-century-style post-and-beam barn stage was built and completed in October by local volunteers. (Nevins said in a past interview that the community raised about $200,000 for this project, man hours included, and nearly twice that much in in-kind donations.) While the stage itself is finished, there’s still work to be done and money to be raised for park lighting and a sound system.
With all of this in place, the bookstore has become a prime place for community members to gather.
Some booksellers will argue that this alone won’t work — that you still need some sort of revenue — but Nevins feels that, in Warner anyway, the more people there are coming in and out of the store, the more likely these people are to support the business and help it succeed.
This is what happened in Portsmouth three years ago when RiverRun Bookstore nearly closed. The shop had a much larger floor space than it does now, and thus, a much higher rent. Business was simply becoming too expensive.
But the community rallied behind RiverRun. Shortly after the announcement appeared in many area newspapers that unless the bookstore received help from some serious investors, the business would close, 150 people turned out for a community meeting to help save it, and shortly after, 15 investors took partial ownership. The business moved to 142 Fleet St., a smaller but now healthier place for RiverRun.
“We were thrilled when people stepped forward, because we would not have continued without the community’s broad-based support,” owner Tom Holbrook said. “We did a lot of things for the community over the decade, and you don’t know if people appreciate that or not until something like that happens.”
Bookstore owners believe in these businesses because people — and not just avid readers — like bookstores. Done right, they become what booksellers like Herrmann and Nevins call the “third place.”
“It’s not where you live, it’s not where you work, but it’s the place where you can go, relax and engage with people, face-to-face. As people become more drawn to texting, emailing, there’s less face-to-face contact, and so many of these places that provide that kind of exchange are thriving. That’s the good news,” Nevins said.
Though to be totally honest, she said, she doesn’t see the hardcover book going out of style anytime soon.
“There is a place for the digital book,” Nevins said. “But there will always be a need to put a child on your lap, read to them, and to have that book that provides a solace or comfort.”
“Why open a bookstore? Have you ever been in a bookstore?”
Holbrook was jokingly aghast at the question. But he obviously knows the riskiness of opening a bookstore, especially now.
“I look back with such nostalgia. People said, ‘You’re so brave! So brave to open a bookstore,’” Holbrook said. “I was only 30. I didn’t have children, I didn’t own a house. It was a much easier gamble. If things went wrong, they went wrong. It’s a lot harder now. There’s a lot more responsibility.”
RiverRun — now in its third location — has certainly seen ups and downs, but Holbrook says he can’t imagine doing anything else.
Farther north, Chris and Anna Miner took the plunge last July and purchased New London’s Morgan Hill Bookstore, which for many years was owned by Connie Appel and Peggy Holliday.
“We were vacationers who fell in love with the region,” Anna Miner said in a phone interview. She, Chris and their 7- and 8-year-old daughters lived in Braintree, Mass., before they purchased the bookstore from Appel and Holliday. “It was a regular pit stop for us.”
As fate would have it, the family was on vacation when Appel and Holliday decided to sell Morgan Hill in July 2012.
“We were here in July one day last year, fantasizing about how great it would be to live up here and run this bookstore,” Miner said. “We love the sense of community here, the small-town feel. … And my children love being in the outdoors.”
An hour later, they saw the ad in the newspaper.
“It was meant to be,” Miner said.
Appel and Holliday started the store in 1995, and when they decided to retire in 2012, it was important to them, Miner said, that it remain a bookstore. The idea that a family would continue the legacy was appealing.
Miner thinks a large portion of Morgan Hill Bookstore’s success is due to the community that surrounds it. She and Chris spent the past year training under Appel and Holiday, who passed on a few tips — read the backs of books, remember authors, talk with members of the store’s book clubs in order to get a feel for the literature people in the area like — but their clients don’t need to be lectured on why it’s important to shop local.
“There are lots of people in this community who are well-read. … Amazon is important to compete with, but around here, the mantra is shop local,” Miner said.
Getting people in the door
“You certainly can’t just open doors anymore and hope that people will buy your books. Not that independent bookstores ever did that — but it used to be a lot easier,” Holbrook said.
Today, he said, the biggest struggle is competing for people’s attention.
What’s involved in this competition: being active on Twitter and Facebook accounts (he boasts 7,500 followers) and creating events that bring people into the store and put the business in the media listings.
Lots of the successful independent bookstores in New Hampshire do this. Some of these events feature lesser-known, local authors — the state does have a fairly large number considering its size, said Herrmann — but lots of events feature big-names too. Dan Brown, for instance, made at least one appearance at Water Street Bookstore last year to promote Inferno, and prior to that, he participated in a large-scale event through Gibson’s at the Capitol Center for the Arts. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Harding also made the rounds last year, and Joyce Maynard, a New Hampshire native whose book-turned-movie Labor Day was just released, made a trip to the Peterborough Toadstool last August to promote After Her.
Also key for any bookstore, or really for any business, is location. After that, it’s all about how you use it — whether you join downtown small business committees, like Chartrand has done in Exeter, or whether you partner with area business, as Herrmann has done with Red River Theatres and the Capitol Center for the Arts.
Location is part of the reason why, in November, RiverRun opened a second store in Kittery. It’s small — maybe about the size of your kitchen, Holbrook said, but it’s next to a new cafe and, unlike the Portsmouth place, is in a spot with plentiful parking.
“Trying to get your voice out there with all of the white noise can be one of the hardest things,” Holbrook said.
And so, he thinks that it’s important for independent bookstores to find another, additional revenue model that works for them. For RiverRun, which is at the center of fantastic shops and cafes in downtown Portsmouth, it’s an independent publishing company.
“Lots of bookstores do very well selling things that aren’t books. I’m not very good at that. I’m also surrounded by gift shops,” Holbrook said. “But the publishing company is something that fits so well with the Seacoast.”
One reason is that the area is teeming with writers. RiverRun Bookstore started Piscataqua Press about a year and a half ago and already has helped publish 30 books.
“Two or three times a week, someone local would come in and ask us to carry their book. Oftentimes, they were self-published books and very poorly done — never mind the writing, they were poorly packaged,” Holbrook said. “It would turn out that the author had paid to have it done by an online company, never having talked with anyone face to face. That’s when we realized there’s a niche out there,” he said.
Piscataqua Press books are printed through Ingram (ingramcontent.com), one of the largest book/magazine distributors in the country, Holbrook said. The company utilizes lightningsource.com, too, which Holbrook said is nice because authors don’t need to buy 500 or more copies up front.
Though the company has published work by already-acclaimed writers — in November it printed Teach Us That Peace, a novel by Baron Wormser, who served as the Poet Laureate of Maine for six years — the company’s clientele also includes first-time, less experienced writers, too.
“We’re positioning the company as a service for the author rather than a service for the world of literature. If someone’s book is free of typos, even if it’s not exciting, we’ll still publish it because it will be important to them.”
The business also offers a personalized book recommendations service, led by events coordinator Liberty Hardy — who devours about 250 titles a year.
MainStreet BookEnds is also on the map for its innovative business strategy, but more for its money-saving techniques. It’s the second bookstore in the country, the first east of the Rockies, to go completely solar, which helps the business enormously. The pole-mounted 11.52-kilowatt system at the head of the park was funded through a mixture of state and federal incentives. These solar panels have been the reason for many of the park’s visitors, including local school classes and students from Colby-Sawyer College who were looking to learn more about how a business can utilize solar energy.
“It knocks off the electric bill every month, which is huge for a business,” Nevins said. “We like to be an example for education, but it’s also good for a business sense.”
What about used bookstores?
Some of the most beloved bookstores are the used shops. They have that nostalgic, musty smell that some readers find weirdly appealing. But it seems there are even more things for them to overcome because their biggest selling point is also one of Amazon’s biggest selling points: cheap books.
“How are we transitioning into the 21st century? There are a few things that are facing us,” said Ian Morrison, owner of Northwood Old Books and Old Number Six Book Depot in Henniker. (The Henniker location is the biggest used bookstore in the state, with 165,000 volumes, Morrison said.)
“First, there’s the Internet. It means people can shop around and get what they want and not have to get out of their car. … The other is the ebook. Obviously, that has a lot of appeal for people who want to get something on the cheap, read it and be done with it,” Morrison said.
(On this note, he said with a chuckle, he also noticed a decline on sales of books with racy covers because you can take an ebook on the beach and nobody will know what you’re reading. Hence the 50 Shades of Gray ebook sales phenomenon.)
He and his wife, Helen, opened their Henniker location in 1975, which, at the time of its opening, was attached to the home they lived in. (Ian worked at New England College until about 30 years ago.) They bought the Northwood spot in 1991.
There are no gimmicks to the Morrisons’ business, though he thinks it helps that they keep their inventory well-organized and categorized. (Their Yelp page also has 4.5 out of 5 stars with a lot of high praise from book lovers.)
But these changes in modern bookselling have been undoubtedly tough for used booksellers, Morrison said. When they started selling in the ’70s, he remembers there being 70-something antiquarian booksellers in the state. Today, he said, there are 38 members in the New Hampshire Antiquarian Booksellers Association.
“It’s a tough adjustment,” Morrison said. “There are a lot fewer used bookstores around than there were 30 years ago. My wife and I are both in our 70s. We’re more concerned about how to make this last a little longer, something we both like doing, without going completely crazy or bankrupt.”
Willard Williams, owner of the Toadstool Bookshop, which has stores in Peterborough, Milford and Keene, says that in selling used books, it helps if you have new stuff, too.
Williams opened the Toadstool in Peterborough in 1972 at age 19 with a $25,000 family investment and an 800-square-foot store, according to an article on the American Booksellers Association website. It started as and still is a family-run business, he thinks the oldest in the state. He opened the location in Keene in 1983, Milford in 1989.
The Peterborough location has garnered a lofty collection of used titles.
“This section brings in another group of people who are looking for books at lower prices,” Williams said.
Often, this group will find something new they wanted to buy, too, or vice versa.
“The used bookstore is probably a hard business right now to be in, but we have enough people coming in to support both sections. It’s hard to make it just selling dollar books anymore,” Williams said.
“We all wish we knew for sure what it takes to be successful today,” Williams said. “It’s hard to predict. In the past, we’ve always worked under the assumption that you should treat people well and give them a good selection of books. Customer service is primary.”
He echoed what many of the other shop owners said: Hold events. Stay current on what’s going on in the bookselling world. Listen to the community to figure out what to sell. Read book reviews. Hire intelligent staff members who know books.
And then there’s one thing that all bookstores offer, even used ones, that the Internet never will. Nearly all of the booksellers interviewed used the word “serendipity” or “discoverability” in their interviews.
“It’s hard to be surprised while shopping for books online. And I think a lot of people want to be surprised, they want to be delighted. They want to find the book they didn’t know about,” Chartrand said.
In an independent bookstore, he said, you’re more likely to find that.
“We tend to curate our selection very carefully in an independent bookstore. More so than in a superstore because they need to fill up the space. They have a lot of everything, and it’s hard to tell, in a chain superstore, what they think is really good,” Chartrand said.
Being a bookseller is certainly more work than it’s ever been. But most New Hampshire sellers don’t mind enough to change careers. They still love what they do.
“I like being surrounded by books. I like the people who are reading them. I like the excitement of new books coming in all the time. And I like the challenge of it all,” Williams said. “It’s about the tenacity and conviction of knowing that what we’re doing is right, and what we’re doing, we’re doing well.”
As seen in the January 30, 2014 issue of the Hippo.