It's hard to be much more independent than Vermont, the nation's sixth smallest state (9,615 square miles). In part, that's because the mountains from which it takes its nickname, “the Green Mountain State,” make it difficult to travel east to west. “Not too many people who shop in Montpelier shop in Burlington,” explains NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer. “Talk about shop local. They do it already.” The mountains also account for the large number of independent bookstores (33) despite a population of only 621,000, the second smallest after Wyoming.
For Kermit Hummel, editorial director of the Countryman Press in Woodstock, the impact of a preservationist ethic can't be underestimated. “George Marsh lived here and wrote Man and Nature [published in 1864], which was the beginning of the environmental movement,” he notes, adding that Montpelier is the only state capital without a McDonald's. There are also no billboards in the state.
With only five chain stores in Vermont, they aren't a serious threat for most booksellers. But a proposed Barnes & Noble on Route 7 in Rutland could affect Briggs Carriage Bookstore in Brandon. “It's sad for visitors to the area,” said co-owner Matthew Gibbs, “because they could be lured by the glitz and miss what the lovely independents have to offer.”
But even in small towns, said Linda Ramsdell, owner of Galaxy Bookstore in Hardwick, bookselling provides “a good living and lifestyle in a vibrant bookselling community.” Hers is one of a number of stores throughout the state contributing to that liveliness. Early next year, she and several partners are opening Claire's Restaurant and Bar, which Ramsdell hopes will draw people downtown at night—and where she can hold evening events.
Despite some closings, Vermont continues to attract new bookstores like Phoenix Books in Essex Junction, the area's first “Metro” bookstore with a wine and coffee bar. And there have been successful transitions, like last year's sale of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier to Claire Benedict and her husband, Rob Kasow, who own the mostly used-books store across the street, Rivendell Books.
Some Vermont stores have undergone extensive renovations, like Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, which closed for the month of July. “The worn floors had to go,” said owner Becky Dayton, who uncovered brick walls and the original wall tile from the storefront's A & P days. As part of the makeover, Dayton increased the number of children's books and nearly quintupled her “Local Interest” section.
Last year the Flying Pig Bookshop changed its inventory mix when it doubled its space and moved from Charlotte to Shelburne. The former children's specialty bookstore now carries 40% adult titles. In order to compete with the cluster of big box retailers in nearby Burlington, including the state's only Costco, Flying Pig discounts all adult hardcovers.
Seasoned Booksellers in Rochester, which specializes in books on sustainable living and has a bakery, cut flowers and used clothing, will double its 2,500-sq.-ft. store next spring by taking over an additional floor. Owner Sandy Lincoln credits free Wi-Fi with helping to draw customers. Because of the mountains, many people still have to rely on dial-up Internet connections. Even so, most retailers cite Amazon as their biggest competitor.
When Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center expanded several years ago, it added Wi-Fi. Now the store is testing a different type of technology; this month it became the first bookstore to add an Espresso Book Machine. General manager Chris Morrow said Northshire will not only offer print-on-demand publishing but will also sell public domain titles under the Northshire Books imprint.
A strong events roster is still key to customer loyalty. This summer Bill Reed, who co-owns Misty Valley Books in Chester, taught French classes at the store. Norwich Bookstore relies on author signings to keep shoppers from crossing into tax-free New Hampshire. “We were able to have Grace Paley drive down the road” before the writer's death last summer, said co-owner Liza Bernard. “Chris Bohjalian often comes over the mountain.”
Bookselling Health IndexHousehold Income: $43,697Population: 621,000Independent Bookstores: 36Chain Bookstores: 5Total Bookstores: 41Big-box Stores: 5Total Stores: 46Stores per Capita: 1 per 13,500Per Capita Rank: 2