In the past few years, several iconic independents have changed hands. But none of the new owners have faced new chapters quite as challenging as Dawn Braasch. After Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, Mass., was destroyed in a Fourth of July fire in 2008, Braasch purchased the name of PW's 2003 Bookseller of the Year last fall and worked out a long-term lease agreement with bookstore and property owner Ann Nelson for a building to be erected on the original Bunch of Grapes site. “Nobody else was going to do it. I couldn't imagine my life on the island without the bookstore,” says Braasch, who at the same time opened a small, 650-sq.-ft. temporary Bunch of Grapes. “My fear was, if we went a year without the store being open, people would establish different buying patterns.”
Braasch, who had been an events coordinator at Bunch of Grapes for 18 months before the fire, had looked into buying the store but decided against it. “I was doing a huge restoration on my home,” she says. “And it was a bookstore on Main Street with 37 years worth of history. It was expensive.” Even after the fire, her accountant warned her that buying an independent bookstore is not a good investment. But there had been a bookstore on that site since 1964, and she wanted to preserve the legacy of Nelson, who wanted to retire. “Financially, maybe it wasn't a great investment,” she concedes, “but for a dozen other reasons it is. Bunch of Grapes was worth saving. The depth of selection was, and is, fantastic for a small independent. Ann nurtured authors like David McCullough, Ward Just, and William Styron. It's part of what made the store worth resurrecting—and it's always made a profit.”
Although Braasch, who moved to the Vineyard in 2005 from Greenville, S.C., didn't have experience running a bookstore, she says that it never occurred to her that she couldn't do it. As a single mother with two children, she's had a varied business background, including doing two jobs six days a week. That's before she joined her brothers, who formed a trucking company, DMK & Sons, which she helped grow into a multimillion-dollar business. She also launched a catering company and has worked as a preschool teacher. “I learned,” says Braasch, “that the reality of owning a bookstore is a lot different from your dreams.” In her case, that's meant not just reconstructing a favorite Martha's Vineyard destination but now that it's open, organizing events, buying sidelines, and handling the bookkeeping and hiring.
As for the store itself, which had a grand reopening over this past July 4 weekend, Braasch has made a number of changes while keeping its identity intact. “I wanted it to be warm and cozy,” she says, “a place where people come and browse. To quote [shopping expert] Paco Underhill, I believe the more people stay in the store, the more they're going to buy.” Given the economy, Braasch cut back on the number of titles and books, which gives the new store a more open feel. For the first time, there's extra seating, including some especially designed for kids.
To make it easier to hold author events, Braasch put all the upstairs bookshelves on casters. Even so, she prefers to do fewer events than in years past, when the store had as many as four or five a week. “This summer,” she says, “I kept it to those I thought would draw a big crowd.” She's also experimenting with other types of gatherings, like an in-store writers group led by Vineyard mystery writer Cynthia Riggs. When it comes to big-name authors, Braasch has begun reaching out to other Island booksellers. This summer, for example, the store partnered with Edgartown Books on a joint reading with Richard Russo for That Old Cape Magic. Bunch of Grapes also co-sponsored a Judy Blume event with the children's bookstore across the street, Riley's Reads. “My competition is Amazon,” says Braasch, “not other independent bookstores.”
So far, Braasch's efforts are paying off. Business was up in July compared with two summers ago. August was a different matter. But when she backs out Harry Potter, the gap narrows. Before the end of the year, Braasch plans to expand the store's Web presence so that customers can shop online. She's also looking into POD and an Espresso Book Machine. As to what she sees for the store down the road, she says, “I'm an optimist. If we were only a little bit off in a down economy, Bunch of Grapes has a good future.”