When news spread that Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., had been named PW Bookseller of the Year, the most frequent question Barbara Morrow, who cofounded the store 30 years ago with her husband, Ed, fielded was, "Didn't you win before?"

That's because Northshire has been one of the country's most innovative stores since it opened in 1976, surviving the independent bookstore boom of the '80s and subsequent bust to become one of the top five most profitable bookstores in New England. It has already confronted many of the key bookselling challenges others are just starting to face, such as succession planning and flat book sales, and has come up with some surprising approaches to staying profitable: Would you like a coffee table with that book?


In the Running


With its simple wooden bookcases, exposed wood-beam ceilings and historic central staircase, this former inn and home to the Morrows, set in a small Vermont town (pop. 4,000), is anything but backwoodsy, in outlook or tone. The Morrows have long been industry and local leaders. Ed is finishing a two-year term on the County Planning Commission and is a past president of the ABA; he headed NEBA during its early years. Barbara is a past v-p of NEBA and contributed a chapter on "Stocking Your Bookstore" to the last two editions of the ABA's Manual on Bookselling. Both have served as ABA board members.

Ed and Barbara are known for the sly wit and playful intelligence of their in-store displays, which is also evident by two pieces of art on the path from the parking lot to the store itself: a life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson, with moveable arms weighing "church" vs. "state," and, further along the path, a granite slab etched with the words "Nothing is written in stone."

As perhaps appropriate to a New England town, the family business is gradually passing to another generation. Son Chris has been handling the day-to-day running of the store for the past five years and was recently named president. It was Chris who oversaw the extensive renovations that doubled Northshire's size in December 2003, but he also attends to the small stuff: the handwritten shelf-talker for Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers (Atlantic), for example, is his.

"My parents have pulled back," he tells PW, "but the store is still very much their vision, their commitment to excellence, whether it's the type of shelves we use or the people we hire."

Despite his parents' high profile, Chris says that the ones who really deserve the credit are the staff, people like buyer Stan Hynds, children's specialist Jessica Wood, merchandiser Sarah Knight, IT specialist Ben Parker and sales floor manager Erik Barnum. "They're very dedicated, very skilled and very smart, and they make up for mistakes at the top." As for his own role, he says, "It's to carry forth the aesthetic, to professionalize and to drop what needs to be dropped. There's always room for change."


Never Hidebound


After operating a used-book store for many years, Northshire incorporated the used-book inventory into the main building as part of the 2003 renovations. Northshire experimented with shelving new and used side by side. While the addition of used books has benefited many bookstores, it was not the case with Northshire. Within two years, sales had dropped so much that Chris pulled used books from the sales floor entirely, except in a few categories such as cooking and regional interest. The store still sells used books on its Web site, which was designed to accommodate used books and has fields for the inventory level and condition of each title in the store. "We're struggling with used books in terms of the right business model," says Chris. "Of course, the used-book world is changing, too, with oversaturation online."

To make up for the physical void left by removing used books, the store is upping the number of remainders it carries and expanding the space devoted to them. Since Northshire discounts only Book Sense bestsellers, remainders give customers a chance to find bargains. "We hope to be more aggressive with remainders," says Hynds.


Home Furnishings?


Increasing margin is a tough job in bookselling today; holding margin is a victory in itself. It takes rigorous business acumen, But at Northshire, it is the overall experience of being in the bookstore that its proprietors count on to keep the place healthy. And the place is good. Knopf publicity guru Paul Bogaards says, "If there is a heaven for publishers, it's going to look and feel and smell and sound just like the Northshire." Part of that phenomenon are the plentiful comfortable nooks for people to sit and chat with friends or browse a potential purchase from among the many books, CDs, DVDs and other sidelines for sale—including the chairs. "We've become a lifestyle store centered around books," says Ed, who buys most of the home furnishings. "We're trying to create a serendipitous experience. We have chairs, side tables and rugs—and we're selling them to book people." Some of furniture's appeal for Ed is blind pricing. "The markups can be, but not always, 300% to 400%. That's real retail," he says.

At the same time, Northshire continues to strengthen areas like children's, which accounts for 20% of store sales and was nominated for this year's Lucile Micheels Pannell Award. Even with the renovations, Jessica Woods is already starting to feel pressed for space and in the next few months she will move her office out of the children's area to make way for more books and toys for toddlers. In addition, a children's book-of-the-month-club program launched last year for has been so successful that the store will roll out one for adults in time for the holiday season.

Events for children and adults are strong draws, bringing as many as 500 people to the upstairs reading area. Last year the store hosted 175 events. "We work hard to get authors," says Barbara, who makes occasional trips with members of the staff to New York to visit publishers. "Because of the constant turnover in publicity staff, it's important to let them know we're here and that Vermont's not that far away. The bottom line for us," she adds, "is that the author go away happy."

A goodly number have, including novelist Chris Bohjalian: "I've given readings there before packed houses in ice storms and snowstorms and—once—opposite a New England Patriots playoff game. And invariably, there wasn't an empty seat in the store. Northshire is everything one could want in a bookstore."

However bookstores change in the future, the Morrow family is committed to maintaining that for many decades to come.