Despite its small population, 1.3 million, and geographical span, 8,968 square miles (about one-quarter the size of Maine), New Hampshire offers a lot of advantages to booksellers. Not only does it have the fourth highest median household income, $53,910 (more than $14,000 higher than Maine's), in the country, it is one of only five states that have no sales tax.
That gives its retailers an edge in competing with online vendors and makes it a shopping destination for surrounding states: Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. In 2002, New Hampshire had the third largest total retail sales in New England, accounting for 12% of the region's $206.8 billion in retail sales. At the same time, according to a study by the state's Economics and Labor Market Information Bureau, New England had the largest household retail purchases of any region in the country, with New Hampshire leading the way. Its average household retail purchases of $50,113 were $11,500 more than those of the next closest state, Connecticut.
In addition to its no-tax status, what distinguishes bookselling in the state is New Hampshirites' innate concern for supporting their own. “Distances aren't great in New England,” explained Willard Williams, owner of Toadstool Bookshop with stores in Keene, Milford and Peterborough, “but there's a big movement to shop locally. The general feeling is that people are quite conscious about the need to support local bookstores. That's what's made it possible for such stores to exist.”
It may help that there are also few chain stores for independents to compete with. Most are clustered along the southern border near Massachusetts, and the number has remained relatively constant over the past five years. Barnes & Noble has consistently had four superstores and reduced its Dalton presence from two stores to one. Borders went from three superstores to four and continues to operate five Waldens.
With the exception of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, whose owner, Tom Holbrook, has been an active force in the area's nascent Seacoast Buy Local movement, most booksellers aren't part of a formal alliance. Some, like Laura Lucy, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway, have mixed feelings about pushing a shop-local agenda because the village relies on national outlet stores to bring in customers.
“Rather than talk about local first,” said Dan Chartrand, owner of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, “we're trying to take it to a higher power and talk about how we're embedded in the community. We want to transform the community and ourselves. Our largest section and our specialty is fiction. [Our manager] Elizabeth Plante made it her personal mission to sell Dave Eggers's What Is the What.”
Shopping locally also translates into buying books by local writers. “In this particular market, a small town in northern New Hampshire, at this time of year, we churn through the White Mountain guides and local history books,” said Jeff Wheeler, owner of Village Book Store in Littleton. “On the fiction side, a lot of books are by regional authors: Jodi Picoult, Archer Mayor and Chris Bohjalian.” At MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, “we really focus on local authors,” sais Jim Mitchell, who co-owns the store with his sister, Katharine Nevins. The store does well with books by local writers ranging from Janet Evanovich to P.J. O'Rourke, and one of its current bestsellers is a self-published poetry collection by John Archer (age 97), Walking Backwards Towards Old Age.
In addition, booksellers like Wheeler and Mitchell support local visual artists and crafters. Village Book Store opened a gallery on its lower level for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen; MainStreet BookEnds has a gallery where it sells photographs, illustrations, clay tiles and paintings. Instead of preaching the buy-local message, these booksellers model it.