Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth Bookstore Reaches The End, Hopes to Turn the Page

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 12/29/2018 11:30:24 PM
Modified: 12/31/2018 12:40:16 PM

Now that the Dartmouth Bookstore has closed up shop, attention has turned to whether downtown Hanover can attract a replacement. Anyone looking to break into the bookselling business — or even if they’re already in it — would have reason to be wary.

The final chapter of the Dartmouth Bookstore’s 146-year history wasn’t exactly a fairytale ending.

Barnes & Noble, which had owned the store since 2009, was losing an average of $250,000 a year on the enterprise, an executive with the company’s independent college bookstore unit told me last week.

In addition to rent of roughly $22 per square foot, Barnes & Noble paid $160,000 a year in common area maintenance that went to the landlord for such things as the building’s upkeep, utilities and property taxes, said Paul Maloney, vice president of stores.

“It never was going to work for us,” Maloney said. “The rent was way too high.”

On the day the bookstore closed shortly before Christmas, I sat down with Jay Campion, managing trustee for the building’s family ownership group. I brought up an email that I had received from a bookstore customer. “The Campions made their fortune in Hanover,” she wrote. “Shame on them.”

Campion was aware that in some circles he’s viewed as the greedy landlord who was chiefly responsible for the bookstore’s demise. “I’ve got a black hat stapled to my head,” he said.

Campion, 67, was in high school when he started in the sporting goods department at the downtown store on South Main (adjacent to the Hanover Inn) that his family founded in the early 1900s. Campion’s sold everything from canoes to business suits.

“I totally get why people are upset,” he said. “This is my home, too, I want there to be another bookstore in Hanover.” (Left Bank Books, a used bookstore, has been a longtime downtown staple.)

With the Dartmouth Bookstore’s 10-year lease expiring at the end of this month, Campion and Barnes & Noble had been in renewal negotiations for a while. Campion offered to reduce the rent, but apparently not enough to make Barnes & Noble want to stay.

“I don’t blame him,” Maloney said. “He’s a businessman. I hope he gets the rent that he wants.”

Rent issues aside, I’m not sure Maloney’s company saw much of a future in Hanover. Since the largest book retailer in the U.S. came to town in 2004 (Barnes & Noble managed the Dartmouth Bookstore for five years before buying it), Amazon has turned the bookselling business upside down. The online behemoth now sells one out of every two books in the U.S.

Meanwhile in the last decade, Barnes & Noble has closed more than 150 stores, reducing the chain’s total to about 630, The New York Times reported in August.

In 2015, Barnes & Noble announced it was spinning off its college bookstore business into a separate publicly traded company, Barnes & Noble Education. The new company’s flagship business, Barnes & Noble College, operates nearly 800 campus bookstores across the country.

The Dartmouth Bookstore didn’t fit Barnes & Noble College’s cookie-cutter mold, Campion said. “They didn’t really understand how different it was here,” he said. “They didn’t have their ear to the rail.”

So what’s next for the corner of South Main and Allen streets?

Campion is converting the bookstore’s second floor into office space. As for the basement, which housed everything from poetry books to science fiction novels, he’s not sure yet.

Campion said he’s working on bringing a bookstore — albeit a small one with a “hands-on” owner who offers book readings and signings — to the ground floor. Along those lines, he’s talked with the owners of Norwich Bookstore, which has been in business for 25 years and currently is for sale.

Leaving Norwich for Hanover is not under consideration, co-owner Liza Bernard told me. As far as expanding into Hanover, “we’ve had conversations, but nothing is concrete,” Bernard said.

I’ve also heard through the Hanover grapevine about a prospective owner entertaining the idea of pairing a bookstore with a wine bar. Another idea involves creating a nonprofit (a la the Hanover Improvement Society with the Nugget movie theater) to operate a new bookstore.

Dartmouth, which never owned the bookstore that bears its name, has joined the what’s-next conversation as well. Rick Mills, the college’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said he expects the next bookstore will resemble the Norwich Bookstore more than a Barnes & Noble. It’s a matter of coming up with a “retooled model that works to help keep Hanover a vibrant community,” he said.

The college owns plenty of downtown real estate and has the deep dockets to open a bookstore tomorrow, if it were so inclined. But Dartmouth isn’t interested in subsidizing a new business, Mills told me.

Campion seems optimistic that Hanover will have a replacement sometime in 2019. “It will never be the Dartmouth Bookstore again, but what will re-emerge will be better,” he said.

That sounds great — for book lovers and Campion, himself. No one likes to wear a black hat in their hometown.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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