Same author, new chapter with bookseller’s return to Upper Valley

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-13-2023 10:23 PM

WEST LEBANON — Barnes & Noble is coming back to the Upper Valley.

More than five years after Barnes & Noble College closed the Dartmouth Bookstore in Hanover, the national bookstore chain will open a new shop along the busy Route 12A commercial strip in West Lebanon.

Signs have appeared in the windows of the former Party City space announcing that a new Barnes & Noble store will be “coming summer 2023,” signaling that the national bookseller sees as an opening for a physical retail space despite consumers’ shift to online shopping.

The storefront has been vacant since Party City closed in early 2019, although the space has been temporarily occupied a few times in September and October with a Spirit Halloween pop-up store.

Janine Flanigan, director of store planning and design at Barnes & Noble, said via email that the company is “targeting early August” for opening. The store will stock 30,000 titles — about the average number for a Barnes & Noble store these days, according to a company spokesperson — and be open until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7 p.m. on Sunday.

“We closed the store in Hanover because we lost the lease. A retail space opened up in this center, and it created an exciting opportunity for us to come back into this community,” Flanigan said.

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Technically, the Dartmouth Bookstore was owned by Barnes & Noble College Inc., which operates campus bookstores affiliated with colleges around the county and was spun off from Barnes & Noble Inc. into a separate public company in 2015. Although the two companies still share the Barnes & Noble name, they are no longer related.

In addition to BAM!, better known as Books-a-Million, the Upper Valley hosts four independent bookstores, including Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock and Morgan Hill Bookstore, in New London, as well as several used bookstores.

In the wake of the Dartmouth Bookstore closing at the end of 2018, Dartmouth alumna Allie Levy opened Still North Books on Allen Street in 2019, combining a 2,700-square-foot bookstore stocking 7,000 to 10,000 titles with a café, craft beer and wine bar that is a popular socializing spot for students.

Then, in 2021, the founders of Norwich Bookstore retired after 27 years and sold the store to a Seattle couple, Emma Nichols and Sam Kaas, who relocated across the country to the Upper Valley.

Nichols said she is not worried about what the arrival of a Barnes & Noble means for their 12,000-title bookstore in the center of Norwich.

“All bookstores are a good thing,” Nichols said on Tuesday, upon learning the news.

“We run a pretty different business model from Barnes & Noble. We’ve got a great local community of readers. We serve a different purpose. An indie bookstore is really all about the connection of our staff with our customers,” she said, adding that the Norwich Bookstore also “attracts a lot of tourists because we’re kind of a destination.”

At 10,000 square feet, the West Lebanon Barnes & Noble will have less than half the of 21,700 square feet of the Dartmouth Bookstore, which itself was downsized from more than 44,000 square feet in 2009.

But unlike the Dartmouth Bookstore, the West Lebanon Barnes & Noble will not have a café or coffee bar, Flanigan noted.

The leasing agent for WS Development, the Massachusetts-based owner of Upper Valley Plaza, did not respond to an email for comment.

Once widely expected to be killed off by Amazon, both Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores are experiencing a low-key resurgence. They are filling a niche market for customers who still prefer to roam a bookstore’s aisles and experience the serendipity in discovering new books while browsing shelves and reading descriptions and comments on dust jackets.

Barnes & Noble, on its website, says it has been “experiencing a period of tremendous growth” and opened more new bookstores in 2022 “than it had in the decade since 2009,” when the Great Recession, coupled with a sharp rise in online shopping, devastated the traditional brick-and-mortar retail industry.

The bookstore chain now says it plans to open more than 30 new stores in 2023.

In published interviews, Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt has said the company — now owned by a private equity firm — managed to turn itself around and compete against Amazon by adopting the approach of independent bookstores, which have found new traction after getting crushed by large retail bookstore chains and Amazon.

Under Daunt, the company has empowered local store managers to make book purchasing decisions, tailoring the stock to the reading tastes of the local market, rather than have those decisions made at the corporate level as is the standard policy among retail store chains.

In addition, Barnes & Noble ended the widespread practice of allowing publishers to buy display space in stores to push sales of their titles.

The company has posted on the job site Indeed that it is hiring for three positions at the store: a store manager with a salary range of $36,900 to $46,800 per year; an assistant store manager with a salary range of $32,900 to $41,600 per year and a “lead bookseller” with a salary range of $28,500 to $36,000 per year.

One of the casualties of the retail apocalypse was the giant bookstore chain Borders, which went bankrupt in 2011, resulting in the disappearance of hundreds of Borders stores around the country, including one in the Walmart and Price Chopper plaza on 12A. The Borders’ space was then occupied by Books-a-Million, which subsequently was forced out by a Michael’s crafts store in 2016 and relocated to the north end of 12A in the Target plaza.

A few years after Borders closed, in 2015, Encore Books, a seller of discounted and used books located adjacent to Upper Valley Plaza, shut its doors after being in business for 30 years. The space is now occupied by a smoke and vape store.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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