In Search of Local, Loyal Readers
Independent Bookstores Appeal to Community in a Digital Age
Hillary Leicher, owner of Bud & Bella’s Bookshop in Randolph, laughs with her children Adam, 10, and Kira, 6, at the store last month. Reopening the store in the space where Cover to Cover Bookshop was run by her mother Jeannie Ward for 16 years, Leicher named store after her children's nicknames. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Hillary Leicher, owner of Bud & Bella’s Bookshop in Randolph, talks with a passer-by on Main Street before closing for the evening last month. Nearing the three-year anniversary of her store's opening, Leicher is thinking about closing due to slow sales. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
After no one came to a weekly music night held at her downtown Randolph store, Bud & Bella's Bookshop owner Hillary Leicher cashes out the register and closes early to take her children to the movies. Leicher has been trying to do special events to attract customers to the store. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
Peggy Holiday, co-owner at Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London, helps customer Marjorie Forbes, of New London, pick out a book. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Connie Appel co-owner at Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London chats with a customer at the store recently. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Norwich — Despite the economic downturn and dramatic changes in the publishing industry that have signaled the death knell for bricks-and-mortar independent bookstores, Upper Valley booksellers say they’re alive and well, reflecting a positive nationwide trend.
But to stay afloat, they’ve had to adjust, make themselves relevant to customers and the community and to create new revenue streams, area store owners said recently.
“We’ve had to be flexible and to reinvent ourselves,” said Penny McConnel, who with Liza Bernard has owned and operated the Norwich Bookstore for the last 19 years.
“When we started, we had to decide whether or not to buy a computer. We weren’t sure that we needed one to open. Now, we have e-commerce, and you can’t do business without them,” McConnel said.
One of the key factors to the store’s continued success has been its position in the center of town, and the fact that everyone who works in the store is an avid reader. They know a great deal about books and can help customers make choices, both owners said.
“We’ve been here and part of the community all this time, and we offer community events that keep people involved and us involved with the customers,” Bernard said.
To keep the Norwich Bookstore a prominent part of community life, Bernard and McConnel have regular visits from authors who come to the store for readings and book signings. In addition, they are active with community fundraisers and with the schools and the library. They also have partnered with this summer’s reading series in Canaan and Strafford to sell books and have a presence during the events.
When Connie Appel and Peggy Holliday started the 2,000 square foot Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London 18 years ago, there was no Amazon website or a Borders or Barnes & Nobel in the Upper Valley.
“They started the same year that we did,” Appel said. “That was great timing on our part.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in 18 years, and we’ve survived by knowing books inside and out and knowing our customers and the community.”
Appel said she and Holliday have lived in New London for decades, and they know most of their customers.
“I know their names and their reading tastes, and we’re active in the community. Our customers are wonderful, and they believe in supporting independent businesses and buying local,” she said.
But Appel and Holliday are retiring from the store, which they sold earlier this year to a younger couple, who will takeover in July.
“This store deserves young blood and new ideas. It needs to do more online and with the website. The new owners are perfect for that, and they’re really enthusiastic about it,” Appel said.
“We’ve had a wonderful time, and we’ve done well because we’ve had such loyal customers, but now it’s time for us to do something else.”
Like many independent bookstores, both Norwich and Morgan Hill have websites offering staff reading recommendations that can be ordered online. The stores also sell the KoBo electronic reader and its 3 million e-books.
The American Booksellers Association formed a partnership with KoBo this year and has been working with independent store members to promote the readers and the e-books.
There’s a problem, however. KoBo is “the most successful e-book company in the world that most Americans haven’t heard of,” ABA CEO Oren Teicher said during the association’s annual meeting in May.
To gain more recognition, KoBo and ABA launched a nationwide brand campaign this month, sponsoring spots on a number of National Public Radio’s top programs. The effort is expected to reach as many as 6.5 million listeners, who fit the book reading demographics, Teicher said.
Sales from e-books in the United States are rapidly approaching $1 billion a year, with more than 100 million units sold annually, according to figures published by the Small Business Administration last year.
In general, book industry sales are just over $19 billion a year, and U.S. households spent an average of $55.23 last year in bookstores, the SBA report says.
In spite of the decline in the economy, the growth of e-books and the competition from such online booksellers as Amazon (books for Amazon’s Kindle reader can only be purchased from Amazon), independent bookstores are growing nationwide, ABA spokesman Dan Cullen said in an email.
Independents had about an 8 percent growth last year, and in the first two quarters of this year they have shown double-digit growth, he said.
The ABA also is gaining new and prospective members from all parts of the country, he said.
Book sales have been slow so far this year in Woodstock, primarily because the economy is just recovering and the town’s tourist business has been off recently, said Shiretown Books owner Ron Miller, who bought the store just over two years ago after giving up a college teaching job.
“We’re doing all right, but we could be doing better,” he said.
Shiretown is just down the street from Yankee Bookshop, and although the two stores compete, both try to carry different books, and they work together for the general good.
“If I don’t have a book, I’ll send someone down to Yankee to see if she has it, and she does the same for me,” Miller said.
Miller also said he’s working with Bookstock, Woodstock’s town-wide reading festival in July, and hopes that the event will help with his sales.
In Randolph at Bud and Bella’s bookshop, Hilary Leicher isn’t prospering. In fact, she’s appealing to customers to come in and shop this summer, or she might be forced to close, she said.
“It’s been a tricky year and a half. I’m just trying to survive,” she said.
Leicher, who was the lead singer of the popular Upper Valley dance band Hilary and the Party Crashers, was doing well when she first opened the store three years ago to fill a gap left in town by the closing of the Cover to Cover Bookstore, which was owned by her mother.
She had regular author readings and Friday night musical picking sessions. She built up her line of children’s books, an area she saw as having a strong demand.
Then, she was knocked out of work for more than a year with an illness and hit with resulting financial problems.
“The business hasn’t recovered, but I believe strongly that if I can’t make it selling my wares, then maybe Randolph doesn’t need a bookstore.
“I don’t want to borrow money, and I don’t want people to give me money. I’d just like them to come in and buy what we’re selling. I’m pretty optimistic, though,” she said.
In his speech in May to the annual meeting, ABA head Teicher noted how critical independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores are to a community.
“In indie bookstores, customers can experience, like nowhere else, a deeper connection with authors, great writing and their community … and that experience of discovery ripples out into the entire community.”
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.