Turning the Page: Woodstock’s Yankee Bookshop Under New Ownership

  • Kari Meutsh, at left, and Kristian Preylowski, the new owners of Yankee Book Shop, pose for a portrait with the former owner, Susan Morgan, at right, on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at the bookstore in Woodstock, Vt. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2017

Woodstock — Barnes & Noble defined bookselling for more than a century, but DeSanto & Reiner may be its future.

Booksellers and partners Mike DeSanto and Renee Reiner, owners of Phoenix Books, have acquired the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock by backing local partners in a structure aimed at sustaining community bookstores with loyal customers.

Susan Morgan sold the 82-year-old purveyor of quality literature on Woodstock’s Main Street earlier this month to the Phoenix Books owners, who operate bookstores in Vermont in Essex, Burlington, Rutland and Chester, and Kari Meutsch and Kristian Preylowski, a young couple who have relocated from Jericho, Vt., as managers and co-owners of the store.

The Yankee Bookshop, as much a part of Woodstock’s shire town image as F.H. Gillingham and Son’s general store and the annual holiday Wassail Parade, bills itself as “Vermont’s oldest continuously run bookstore.” But seller Morgan said it was time for a new chapter.

“After 15 years of 24/7 ownership doing everything, including cleaning the toilet, I realized the bookshop needs fresh eyes and fresh passion to continue to be one of Woodstock’s keystone businesses,” said Morgan in a news release. “I’m tuckered out! Yankee Bookshop deserves owners who are media savvy. I want to see the Yankee Bookshop hit its 100 year mark and still be going strong. I know it can’t happen with me as owner, but when it happens I hope it see it.”

Meutsch has been an assistant general manager for several years at Phoenix Books, and her fiance Preylowski most recently has been an assistant manager at image processor PhotoGarden in South Burlington. The couple met when they were both working at the former Barnes & Noble store in Burlington.

Terms of the sale were not disclosed, but the change in ownership was facilitated by a unique arrangement between the Phoenix Books owners and Meutsch and Preylowski. The couple will be on-site managers and run the store in addition to having an ownership interest, DeSanto in an interview.

DeSanto said the ball got rolling on the purchase of the Yankee Bookshop when Morgan’s husband, Woodstock Home and Hardware owner Larry Perry, called and left message.

“Larry called my store in Essex and I left it alone for 10 days. I couldn’t figure out why someone from a hardware store in Woodstock would want to talk to me,” DeSanto said.

When the two finally connected, Perry explained that the bookstore — located in one of the state’s most historic towns which benefits from year-round tourism — was founded in 1935 during the teeth of the Great Depression and is profitable. DeSanto said his reaction was, “Gee, I’d really like to own that one.”

At the same time, the proposal dovetailed with Meutsch’s own expressed interest to one day own and operate her own bookstore.

“Kari had been working for us for six years and worked for Barnes & Noble for six years before that and had always said to me how much she wanted to own a bookstore. I knew I needed a local owner who had bookstore experience.

“So the deal we came up with is we’ll move (Meutsch and Preylowski) to Woodstock as our managers and give (them) a partnership arrangement that will vest over time to close to 50 percent. For all intents and purposes, Kari runs the store as her own store,” DeSanto said.

Contrary to the popular perception that the Internet is killing off traditional bookstores, DeSanto said, in recent years independent bookstores have experienced a comeback as the big-box retailers such as Borders went out of business and Barnes & Noble has cut back its outlets.

That has created an opportunity to serve book lovers who still want to browse shelves and turn the pages between the covers in their hands.

“My stores have all had upticks in sales the last five years,” DeSanto said.

Meutsch, for her part, said owning a bookstore has been “a lifelong dream for the two of us. I’ve always found sanctuary when I am around books.”

“Between us we have 20 years of bookselling experience,” she said last week as she and Preylowski took a break from work in the store.

The store’s name will not change and Meutsch and Preylowski said they don’t plan on going the route of many bookstores that diverge from the core business of books by adding a coffee and pastry bar or selling potpourri or tech items.

“Susan had such a good thing going we just want to keep her legacy moving forward,” Preylowski said, adding “it’s important for communities to have a bookshop in town because it’s their soul and character.”

DeSanto and Reiner have been pioneering innovative financing techniques to fund Phoenix Books’ expansion.

When they opened their second store in downtown Burlington in 2012, following the closing of Borders, they raised capital through the sale of individual $1,000 pre-buy certificates for the purchase of books.

“The rule of thumb is $100,000 for every 1,000 square feet of store space,” DeSanto said. “The Burlington store is about 5,500 square feet. We raised more than half the money from investors. You can do the math.”

The program, which works similar to a Community Supported Agriculture farm share, was repeated in 2015 when a local Rutland group approached DeSanto and Reiner about opening a store in that city. Phoenix raised $60,000 in $1,000 pre-buy certificates from Rutland residents and partnered with Tom Huebner, chief executive of Rutland Regional Medical Center, to open a 2,500-square-foot store at the corner of Merchants Row and Center Street.

Last year Phoenix bought Misty Valley Books in Chester, adding a fourth store to its Vermont network of shops. Now, with the purchase of Yankee Bookshop, Phoenix owns 25 percent of the 20 independent bookstores in the state that are members of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.

DeSanto said entering into a partnership to acquire a local bookshop is something he is likely to try if the right opportunity arises.

“That seems to be the model now we are looking for in the future,” he said. “Someone with bookstore experience who is ready to take the next step.”

But DeSanto, who worked for a Washington trade association before he entered the bookstore business by acquiring Winooski’s former Book Rack and Children’s Pages in 1995 (which DeSanto and Reiner sold in 2003), said the bookstore business — even owning multiple bookstores — is not a path to riches.

Rather, people in the independent bookstore business do it for the love of books, engaging with customers over the excitement of books, and providing what they believe is an important cultural service for the communities in which they live.

“Profitable?” DeSanto repeated when asked the question. “It’s all right. Yes, the stores are profitable. You couldn’t keep them going if they weren’t. Would we be better off investing in today’s stock market? Yes, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. … Our mission is to grow our local bookstores and support the communities that host them. This is a deliberate, conscious decision as a business model.”

John Lippman can be reached at 603-727-3219 or jlippman@vnews.com.