Editorial: A Local Bookstore Beats the Odds

Sunday, September 21, 2014
Happy Birthday to the Norwich Bookstore and many happy returns. Well, not the sort of returns that involve receipts, refunds and dissatisfied customers; those would be unhappy returns. We refer to the hope that this bookstore, which turned 20 yesterday, will continue to survive — better yet, thrive — in a community that has seen many an independent bookseller, not to mention many other locally owned and revered retailers, disappear.

The Norwich Bookstore has defied the odds for two decades. As staff writer John Lippman reported in the Sunday Valley News Sept. 7, the shop appeared on the scene just as Borders, Barnes & Noble and other commercial giants were crushing smaller independent stores. Trends seemed to suggest that owners Liza Bernard and Penny McConnel were embarking on a risky, if not doomed, venture. Moreover, the area supported as many as 30 independent booksellers at the time.

Then came the online retailer Amazon, which managed almost singlehandedly to crush the national chains and decimate smaller bookshops that dotted America’s Main Streets.

“When we opened people asked, ‘Why are you opening a bookstore?’ ” said Bernard, recalling the inauspicious timing of the launch in 1994. “And we are still here.”

The Norwich Bookstore’s unexpected success is emblematic of other independently owned stores of all varieties that have bucked prevailing trends and carved out niches in a commercial world dominated by national brands and giant box stores. Not only is the bookstore still here, it is slightly bigger than before. The owners marked 20 years in business by expanding their retail space in the pleasing commercial cluster adjacent to the Norwich post office.

Indeed, the Norwich Bookstore would seem to epitomize the counter-trend summed up in such recent headlines as “Independent Booksellers Mount Offensive Against Amazon’s Dominance” (Newsweek) and “The Independent Bookstore Lives! Why Amazon’s Conquest Will Never Be Complete” (Salon). According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has risen from its 2009 low of 1,651 to 2,094. That’s about half the number of 20 years ago, but it’s clearly premature to declare the death of the locally owned bookstore.

The fact is that many book buyers crave the sort of intimate and personal experience a locally owned bookstore typically provides. The pleasure isn’t necessarily in the volume of books — the Norwich Bookstore stocks 10,000 to 15,000 titles, a relatively modest number compared with larger booksellers. Rather, the pleasure is in the carefully considered mix of titles. In Norwich, cards on the shelves provide synopses and staff recommendations. Bernard and McConnel attribute their success in part to the fact that they “curate” their selections, selling books their customers are apt to like. And, like many a locally owned enterprise, the selection reflects the interests and judgments of the owners, much as the front page of a good newspaper reflects the sensibilities and interests of its editors.

The store also operates a popular website and blog to keep clientele informed about publishing events. And it regularly organizes popular author readings and book signings. In other words, the Norwich Bookstore is a cultural asset in a well-read, collegiate community that appreciates the special attention to local authors and other things local, including regional nonprofits.

Who’s to say what the reading and publishing universe will look like 20 years from now? Certainly few could have predicted the seismic changes of the past 20, including the advent of Amazon and the rise of the e-book (which is, ironically, giving Amazon a run for its money). But it’s hard to imagine that readers, assuming they still exist, won’t continue to celebrate the bookshop around the corner. In fact, we are optimistic that locally owned businesses in general have a vibrant future if they are smart and connect closely with the customers.