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Founders sell Norwich Bookstore to Seattle couple

  • Norwich Bookstore owners Penny McConnel, of Norwich, left, and Liza Bernard, of South Pomfret, right, started the business in 1994 after becoming friends through a book group. They have sold the store to Emma Nichols and Sam Kaas, of Seattle, Washington, who will take over in June. Bernard and McConnel were photographed in the Norwich, Vt., store on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

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    Carin Pratt, left, helps customer Betsy Eccles, right, at the Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vt., Thursday, April 29, 2021. "It's an institution," said Eccles of the store that was recently sold. "I'm very excited that booksellers are buying it." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Emma Nichols, left, and Sam Kaas are relocating to the Upper Valley from Seattle and expected to close on their purchase of the Norwich Bookstore in June. (Kim Hooyboer photograph)

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 4/29/2021 9:21:13 AM
Modified: 4/30/2021 6:23:45 PM

NORWICH — A new chapter is in the works at the Norwich Bookstore.

Founders Penny McConnel and Liza Bernard, who have owned and run the independent bookstore for nearly 27 years, are selling their business to a Seattle couple who will take over next month.

Emma Nichols and Sam Kaas, two experienced booksellers, are relocating to the Upper Valley and are expected to close on their purchase of the Norwich store in June, the parties said.

Last week’s announcement by McConnel, 81, and Bernard, 66, brings to a close a plan begun two years ago to find a new owner to carry the bookstore forward in anticipation of their retirement. McConnel, who had been a book buyer for the former Dartmouth Bookstore, and Bernard, an art consultant and fiber craftswoman, had met through a book group and spent years researching the business before opening the store in downtown Norwich in the summer of 1994.

“We were very careful about the starting of the business and didn’t rush into anything, and we were very careful about finding new owners,” Bernard said Thursday while sitting on the back porch of the Main Street store with McConnel.

Nichols, 30, and Kaas, 29, have risen through the ranks of bookselling since they were in college and now work at two well-known independent bookstores in Seattle — she as a manager and buyer at Elliott Bay Book Co. and he as author events manager at Third Place Books — but said they have been scouting for several years for their own store to run and community to settle in that would be closer to Kaas’ family on the East Coast.

Then they read in a booksellers trade publication nine months ago about the Norwich Bookstore being for sale.

“We shot (McConnel and Bernard) an email and said, ‘Here we are. We’re looking for a book store to call home,’ ” said Nichols, who grew up in Northport on Long Island in New York (Kaas grew up in Bellingham, Wash.).

Kaas sought to allay fears that their arrival would upend the store and its relationship with the community.

“We have many ideas and lots of inspiration from our years working in bookstores, but the main thing we are going to do is steward this store forward,” Kaas said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “This is a great store. It doesn’t need big changes. We are very reverent of that.”

“The important things we’re going to be doing are following Liza and Penny’s legacy and following the great tradition they’ve nurtured for nearly 30 years,” Kaas said.

Bernard said she and McConnel received more than 100 inquiries about the store and held Zoom calls with “dozens” of potential buyers.

McConnel said the pandemic, during which time the store continued to sell books over the phone, email and online for customers to pickup on a table outside on the porch, was leading many people to reevaluate their lives and a book store offered in a small New England town sounded tantalizing.

“A lot of people did soul searching about what they wanted to be doing and a book store in Vermont was an attractive possibility,” McConnel said.

But, McConnel said, when “some people realized it was a hands-on full-time job, they backed off. They got more information about the town and realized (they were) not ready to be rural. Others not rural enough.”

Despite the common perception that bookstores, with one foot in the traditional print and the other in bricks-and-mortar retailing, are a doomed business, independent bookstores — at least the ones like the Norwich Bookstore that have adopted a strong author events program — have shown surprising resiliency in recent years.

Dan Cullen, a senior strategy officer with the American Booksellers Association in White Plains, N.Y., said via email Thursday that independent bookstores, like all small retail businesses, were “significantly impacted” by the pandemic with more than 70 stores closing in 2020. But at the same time, 42 new independent bookstores opened last year, and online sales skyrocketed 680%.

The pandemic forced many independent bookstores to harness social media to help “book buyers discover titles and connect with authors in a post-COVID world,” Cullen said, just as many looked to selling gifts and opening coffee bars years earlier when big-box chain bookstores emerged as a threat.

McConnel and Bernard said they were looking to sell to “digital natives.”

And Cullen said booksellers need to be comfortable with doing such things as adopting Instagram Live storytimes for kids, Zoom “debut author” interviews, FaceBook Live book group meetings and offering “online book mixers.”

“I’m totally unequipped in social media,” said McConnel, adding that she doesn’t even use a TV at home. “Liza is pretty darn equipped. Sam and Emma are very equipped in social media. That is their generation.”

McConnel and Bernard declined to discuss terms of the sale, but the broker they enlisted to sell the business, Brattleboro-based Country Business Inc., listed the business for sale with an asking price of $195,000 and revenue of $842,000 and cash flow of $135,000.

Bernard said the incoming owners have extended the lease with the bookstore’s landlord, and the store’s eight employees are expected to remain on if they so choose.

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, McConnel said the bookstore, which was helped by the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, remained profitable in 2020.

“I think we were pleasantly surprised at what we were doing,” she said.

Contact John Lippman @jlippman@vnews.com.

Correction

Liza Bernard is a co-founder and co-owner of the Norwich Bookstore. An earlier version of this story misspelled her last name.




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