Monday, April 27, 2009

When is a Mill not a Mill? When it's a Bookstore, of course.

When I walked up to the counter the second time, the clerk gave me a slightly puzzled look. However, I had prepared myself for her reaction. The stack of books that I thunked-down on the counter was the same height as the stack I had thunked-down 30 minutes ago. For a moment, she was wondering to herself, "Is he buying one more book - while still carrying around the dozen he already bought...or is this a whole new stack?"

Yes, it was a whole new stack. (She then made a small fist-pump for success - realizing she had another multi-copy sale.) When I go to the Montague Bookmill, one of my favorite rural New England bookstores, you can count on a stack or two each time. What was different this time was that my wife, Patti, came along for the visit. She plunked herself down on one of the comfy couches and began reading a huge volume about Feng Shui design. As an amateur interior designer and decorator she is always looking for inspiration. (She bought the book.)

And inspiration is what you find at the Montague Bookmill. Set inside the old gristmill along the Sawmill River not too far from Northampton MA, it's the perfect place to find books, music and a delightful grilled sandwich served on sourdough bread. Last week, I found some great biographies, among other books, and felt somewhat cheated that I had to put some of the books back on the shelf. They will have to wait for the next visit.

But, we also spent some time touring the area and taking pictures. In addition to interior design, Patti is an accomplished amateur photographer too. We took pictures at the Sawmill River and at places along the way home too. Altogether, it was a great day at a great destination rural bookstore in New England. The Montague Bookmill is only one of my favorite 25 rural New England bookstores, but it has the advantage of being only 45 minutes away from my home, so I can go as often as I like. I don't have to wait for a vacation or long-weekend get-away. Let me know if you've been there.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Concept: One-Day Bookstore Tour

When I discovered the suggestion by Joseph Trenn, proprietor of The Book Shed in Benson, Vermont, of a One-Day Vermont Bookstore Tour, I was fascinated with its powerful simplicity. Unlike the elaborate Bookstore Tourism, developed and promulgated by Larry Portzline, the One-Day concept described by Trenn on his website hit home for me.

Bookstore Tourism Made Simple
Here was a way to accomplish much of what Portzline was seeking, without the necessity of the elaborate planning, recruiting, organizing and execution surrounding his Bookstore Tourism operation. Trenn simply listed four nearby bookstores along the back roads of central Vermont – and presto – you had a custom, one-day bookstore tour. It was suitable for you to do it by yourself, or with a friend, or your family – or your church choir if you wanted to rent a bus. But, it was simple, direct and low-cost.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole Bookstore Tourism concept as promoted by its inventor, Larry Portzline, which encouraged tourists to join together – often on a rented bus – to “tour” destination bookstores. Portzline led groups on tours in various parts of the country and other organizations took up the challenge to promote visits to interesting and exciting independent bookstores. Unfortunately, the movement, which began about five years ago, has fallen on hard times as Portzline has removed himself as the champion of the concept. But, in various places around the country, there continue to be enthusiasts organizing trips in the spirit of bookstore tourism as originally envisioned by Portzline.

One-Day Bookstore Tours
In keeping the spirit of Bookstore Tourism alive, I believe that Joseph Trenn’s suggestion of spending a day roving from one bookstore to the next is fantastic. In my book, A Vacationer’s Guide to Rural New England Bookstores, I have outlined several One-Day Bookstore Tours in New England for my readers to consider. Of course, I include The Book Shed in Benson and the bookstores nearby in Poultney, Whiting and Rochester, VT. I also describe tours in other regions of New England that might tempt you to take a day trip or to devote one of your vacation days to bookstore touring.

Recently, I was in Mystic, CT and after visiting at Bank Square Books it was easy to include The Book Barn in Niantic and Harbor Books in Old Saybrook before I drove home. Whoops! I just made a bookstore tour in about three hours. (Bought a lot of books too, including two at Harbor Books for one dollar a piece.)

Destination Bookstores
I didn’t invent the one-day bookstore tour; that credit belongs to Joseph Trenn. But, I believe that my list of one-day bookstore tours to "destination bookstores" could contribute to a fine day’s outing for you and some small help to the independent bookstores of New England struggling to compete in the age of the super box-store and digital online bookstore world. Make a day of it and make a statement.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Can New England Booksellers Defeat the Trend in Closings?

Lately, it seems every few weeks, I come across articles on the internet from various newspapers around the country about another independent bookstore closing. Once in a while a chain-store shop closes, but more often than not, it’s an independent. The story always has similar threads. The owner of many years has seen a steady decline in sales without hope of reversing the trend. Frequently, there is no one else in the family interested in continuing the business. Attempts to sell have failed and the final decision is to close.

Some of the authors of these articles have commented on the influence of internet-based shopping, such as, the influx of chain-based bookstores, such as Borders and the perceived overall decline in reading as contributors to the onslaught of independent bookstore closings. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that this trend away from independent store owners has hit the bookseller just as much as neighborhood groceries, local sandwich shops, local pharmacies and other owner-operated enterprises. It’s very difficult in the modern age to compete with the efficiencies of the chain or box store. Look what Home Depot and Lowe’s did to the local lumber yard.

Are Things Different in New England?
But, in New England, I have detected an extra heartiness among the independent booksellers. The rural New England bookstore has managed to succeed into the new age without compromising too much of its rural charm. The successful and appealing local booksellers are the ones that merge the online sale of books with the brick and mortar attractions. Where necessary, the local, rural New England bookstore offers the CD’s, the cafĂ©, the
wi-fi and other modern accoutrements that allow them to compete with the chain and box versions of the old-fashioned, rural, neighborhood bookstore; all this without sacrificing the sometimes esoteric, charming, personal touch many of us enjoy at the local, rural New England bookshop.
Without any scientific or statistical basis for making any claims, I would offer one observer’s opinion that the Toadstool bookstores in Peterborough NH and Milford NH are not likely to become threatened by a box store. They maintain enough rural distance to not be attractive to the chain store, which thrives in the denser population areas. Now, the Toadstool bookstore in Keene NH faces the challenge of a box store already in place. But, the community is certainly large enough and vibrant enough to support these two stores, plus a few others that co-exist in Keene. So, what are the prospects for closings? I see them as unlikely in the near future. The strength of these independents rests in their location, their commitment to stocking what the community is looking for, their creativity in inventory and presentation, all of which, keep the customers coming back.

Cherish Rural Bookstores While We Still Have Them
While we have them, the local, rural New England bookstore is a rare treat. It’s a place to satisfy the need to hold a book in your hand, surprise yourself with a used book at a tremendous bargain, (which you had been meaning to read for years) and a place where you can maintain a bit of community contact, not otherwise likely to happen at Mr. Big Box.

In its January 9, 2008 edition, in its Travel section, USA Today selected nine bookstores across the country that it considered worthy as a
tourists destination. Not just a place to visit while doing something else – but, as a reason to get on a plane, train or automobile and seek out the designated bookseller. They asked the question, “When is a bookstore worth a tourist’s time”? Their answer was “When it’s more than just a place where you can buy books.”

By that definition, to be a destination for a tourist or anyone interested in more than just grabbing the latest best-seller, the “destination” bookstore must offer something not available at a cookie-cutter chain-store or just a click-away on the internet (free shipping included). It must offer the tactile, aromatic, convivial something only available at your neighborhood, rural, locally-owned independent bookstore. For each of us, it’s something different and probably not well defined. But, as the famous Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

For me, that’s what keeps the successful independent bookstore operating during these highly competitive times for small retailers. It’s the reason why I believe that the New England bookstore will defeat the trend in closings suffered recently by independent booksellers.

By the way, as it turns out, the USA Today article did not include any booksellers in New England. Well, for my sake, that’s not a bad thing. Why? Well, because it leaves my book, A Vacationer’s Guide to Rural New England Bookstores, your single best source to find an excellent “destination bookstore,” in New England. (Just a brief commercial message; sorry.)