Vermont may be a small state, but it’s big with readers. In fact, it ranks third in the nation when it comes to the number of bookstores per capita. That’s keeping independent booksellers happy this shopping season.
In the past few years, as big bookstore chains like Borders and Brentano’s have folded, small independent bookstores have surprised some doomsayers by standing up to competition from E-books and Internet vendors like Amazon. For example, Green Mountain Books and Prints, in the heart of Lyndonville, is still going strong 37 years and three owners after the doors first opened.
As a few regular customers line up at the cash register, a bespectacled middle-aged browser from Washington, D.C. peers at shelves crammed with both used and new books. His name is David Rusk, and he comes into the store every time he visits family in Vermont.
“I’d say it’s chaos filled with all sorts of nuggets,” he says with a smile.
And some of the rarest nuggets will go home with him.
“I’ve bought a book by Steven Runciman called The Fall of Constantinople," he says of a past find, "so it’s a very varied kind of shopping around. You see things on the shelves that grab your attention and strike some kind of spark and you grab it."
That’s just the kind of discerning out-of-town shopper the owner of this store wants to attract. But Kim Crady-Smith also knows that to thrive, a downtown bookstore needs local foot traffic.
That’s one reason you can find her at 7:30 on a weekday morning making espressos at the café she and her partner own next to their bookstore.
“Both places in their own right are cozy places that draw people to them so it’s useful,” Crady says, over the whoosh of the milk steamer.
In addition to opening the café, Crady-Smith has updated the business she bought in 2007 from a Lyndon State English professor and his wife. Now you can buy rare books and prints from a website, and social media is boosting marketing.
“I had an intern this summer who got us onto Twitter and Pinterest which I am still learning about,” she says.
She’s wearing a button with the hashtag “#giveabook.” Penguin Random House, the publisher, is donating up to 25,000 books to the Save the Children organization—one for every time the hashtag is used.
But independent bookstores in Vermont also make their own charitable gifts. For example, this holiday season Bear Pond Books in Montpelier gave a 15 percent discount to anyone who bought a book for a needy child through the Children’s Literacy Foundation. Claire Benedict and her husband Robert Kasow own Bear Pond, for new books, and Rivendell, for used books, across the street.
“And what we’re seeing now is the independent bookstores strengthening again,” Benedict says.
Benedict concedes that some local bookstores closed along with the big chains when the recession hit and E-readers burst onto the scene. But according to a survey by the American Booksellers Association, online reading and selling seem to be leveling off now, and independent bookstore revenues grew by over 5 percent last year. Benedict says Bear Pond and Rivendell are both thriving.
“In Vermont I would say a huge, huge part of why we’re still there is that people understand and understood before it became trendy the concept of buying local,” she says.
For example, this holiday season one of the biggest sellers is itself local—Ice Ship, a book about polar exploration by Vermont author Charles Johnson. You can find that on Amazon, but Benedict says while some shoppers may flip through the pages in her store and then order online, many do just the opposite—researching it online, but patronizing their neighborhood vendor.
Bear Pond just got a windfall from the James Patterson Foundation, which gives away a million dollars each year to independent bookstores throughout the nation. Last year, grants went to the Norwich Bookstore, and Phoenix Books, in Essex Junction.
Here is a partial list of other independent bookstores in Vermont.