Bradford, Vt., Bookstore in a Bind as Downtown Retail Struggles

  • Nancy Hanger, owner of Star Cat Books in Bradford, Vt., chats with a customer at the store in Bradford, Vt., on Thursday, Nov.29,2018. She is trying to raise money to keep the shop open and has been getting donations via social media. The store is listed in the 62 best independent bookstores in the world, as voted by Atlas Obscura, in the New York Times. The store has hosted seven author readings in the past three months.(Valley News - Rick Russell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Matt Oldershaw Sr., left, helps customer Jonathan Lever, of Bradford,Vt., at Star Cat Books in Bradford, Vt., on Thursday, Nov.29,2018. Shop owner Nancy Hanger is trying to overcome financial difficulties to keep the store open. Oldershaw has started a book club for kids that has enrolled about 100 area children.(Valley News - Rick Russell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Matt Oldershaw Sr. and his therapy cat, Gaby, work at the counter of Star Cat Books on Thursday in Bradford. Oldershaw said he brings Gaby to work because he has seizures and she can sense them before they happen, allowing him to take medication to prevent them. He said he became interested in books while reading to his 2-year-old daughter while recovering from a brain injury. (Valley News - Rick Russell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Gavin Persons,13, and his father Aaron, owner of NEK Windows, of St.Johnsbury,Vt.,wash windows at Star Cat Books in Bradford, Vt., on Thursday, Nov.29,2018.(Valley News - Rick Russell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Sunday, December 02, 2018

Bradford, Vt.— The past few years have been tough on Bradford’s Main Street.

First, the town’s fabled five-and-dime store, Hill’s, closed after 56 years in business. Then the home crafts DIY store Gardenhouse Studio shut its doors for good. Perry’s Oil Service, which had an appliance store on Main Street, ran out of gas after the business was acquired by an out-of-state fuel distributor.

In October, gallery and gift store North of the Falls went south, too, ending a 15-year run. And the town liquor store, The Bottle Shop, evaporated this fall.

Even the Subway franchise, a stalwart on Main Streets nationwide, was abruptly submarined last summer, its contents still visible through its darkened windows like a haunted house.

Now the town’s bookstore, Star Cat Books, which is squeezed between the vacant storefronts where Gardenhouse Studio and Subway used to be, is facing the prospect of closing by the end of the month unless its owner can come up with $5,500 she owes her landlord in rent.

Nancy Hanger has launched a social media campaign to raise money to pay the back rent.

So far, Hanger said last week, she has raised $4,000. Sshe launched the campaign on Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving.

Her rent is $750 per month, but sales haven’t been enough to cover the store’s expenses.

“I have only $1,500 to go,” Hanger said. “I’ll be able to pay my rent back before Dec. 31.”

“Summer was terrible,” said Hanger, who acquired the former Booked Solid bookstore in late 2013. Star Cat sells mostly used books but also specializes in selling new science fiction and fantasy genre books. “None of us ever had a summer like this.”

Hanger blames the drop-off in customer traffic along Bradford’s Main Street to the 2015 closing of Hill’s, which served as a magnet for other storefront retailers in town.

“People were coming in specifically to the five-and-dime and then would shop the rest of the town,” she said. “Now with less downtown, there is not a lot of impetus for people to come here and shop.”

David Penland, a 72year-old custom jewelry maker who has had a matchbook-sized shop two doors down from Star Cat Books, said he has seen a “great decline” in retail traffic along Bradford’s Main Street.

Penland, a North Hollywood, Calif., native who now lives in Fairlee, opened his own shop nine years ago after working at Pearce Jewelers and Avidon Jewelers in West Lebanon, to connect with customers.

“I didn’t have the chance to talk with my public,” he said.

Hill’s was an important draw for people, according to Penland, but he also blamed the arrival of box store chains to the area and online shopping for the decline in downtown retail.

Penland said he’s only able to hang on because he had a loyal base of customers and he is the only craftsman who can do jewelry and outer watch repairs between Lebanon and Woodsville.

“Everything in this case has been here for a long time,” said Penland, waving his arm to a display of handmade silver bracelets, rings and other jewelry. “I don’t blame anybody. That’s just the way it is.”

Familiar Faces

Hanger, 58, sat in a cushioned chair before a coffee table at the front of her store where she presides over her business. She’s not the mayor of Bradford — the town doesn’t have one — but she has a line on just about everyone who walks through the door. Most are familiar faces.

“How was Midnight Madness this year?” Nick Zandstra, of Topsham, Vt., asked Hanger, when he popped into the store on a cold and wet afternoon last week to buy two volumes in Jasper Fforde’s “the Last Dragonslayer” series.

Midnight Madness, which occurred on Nov. 2, is the town’s annual nocturnal shopping festival when stores stay open till midnight along Main Street.

“Worst ever,” Hanger said, explaining that the scheduling of music performances by school children that same night at the Space on Main, a co-working space at the other end of Main Street, cut into shopping on what is normally the store’s second-biggest selling time after the pre-Christmas period.

“We’ll get it worked out for next year,” Hanger assured Zandstra.

Hanger is assisted in the store by Matt Oldershaw, 34, who lives around the corner from Star Cat Books and wandered into the store six months ago looking for something to read. The timing was fortuitous: Hanger was recovering from a “mini-stroke” she’d had earlier and was unable to do much lifting.

Oldershaw largely survives on disability insurance he receives from the government that he said is the result of a head injury suffered during an altercation in Keene three years ago. He usually is accompanied by his “medical cat,” Gaby — short for the anticonvulsant medication Gabipentin — who passively hangs draped around his neck like a scarf and, Oldershaw said, is trained to detect pheromones that signal when he is about to have a seizure.

When that happens, Oldershaw said, is Gaby lets out a meow, which means it’s time for him to step outside and smoke medical marijuana, which he said prevents him from convulsing.

Hanger said she pays Oldershaw when she can, but money is not the reason he spends so much time at the store.

“He walked into the store one day with the cat hanging around his shoulder and I thought, ‘This is interesting,’ ” Hanger recalled. “I wouldn’t be able to run the store without Matt. I need somebody physically able to do things I can’t.”

Tough Landscape

It’s no secret that recent history has not been kind to small neighborhood bookstores. First, the national chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders pushed many of them out of business. Then Amazon delivered just deserts — in the eyes of many — when online shopping pushed the national chains to close many of their stores or shut down completely.

The Upper Valley has not been spared from industry trends.

In September, the Barnes & Noble-owned Dartmouth Bookstore in Hanover announced it would close by the end of the year. A few weeks later, Wheelock Books, which is also in Hanover and sells textbooks to Dartmouth students, closed its walk-in store on West Wheelock Street and shifted to an online-only business. Used bookstore Encore Books in West Lebanon closed in 2015, and Woodstock lost one of its two bookstores in 2014. The Borders store in West Lebanon closed in 2011 when the parent company liquidated.

Hanger, a freelance book copy editor, moved to Orford from southern New Hampshire to be closer to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center where she receives treatment for the autoimmune disease lupus. She said she wasn’t looking to become a bookstore owner when the guy mowing her lawn one day told her the bookstore in Bradford was for sale.

Previous owner Jasmyn Bussing, who had acquired the used bookstore — called Booked Solid — two years earlier from co-owners Robin Leonard and Donna Repsher, was struggling and had even taken on housekeeping jobs to support her shop. Bussing moved the store, originally located across the street, into the 1883 Stevens Block building and emphasized romance novels.

Hanger, who has a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College, had worked in Boston bookstores when she was in her 20s before she went into publishing.

“I saw the store, saw all the romance novels, but there were bones behind it — classics, art books, mysteries, westerns — all the things people in this area are interested in. I thought, ‘I could fix this,’ ” Hanger said. “Plus, I wanted to bring in fantasy and children’s literature, really beef that up.”

Alternative Revenue

Hanger said she paid Bussing $15,000 to acquire the business and then she raised $10,000 through crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, which she used for renovations, a point-of-sale system, new shelves, advertising and additional inventory. About 80 percent of the products in Star Cat Books are used, according to Hanger, and 20 percent are new.

Over the years, Hanger had used her contacts in publishing to get authors to do occasional appearances and readings at her store, including Vermont writers like the late Howard Frank Mosher, children’s book writer Brenda Snow (aka Grannie Snow), illustrator Bert Dodson, fantasy and sci-fi writer Dean Whitlock, and late Regency romance author Miranda Neville.

But the effort in bookselling has not panned out as Hanger originally hoped; sales have steadily declined over the past three years, from $33,000 in 2014 — her first full year in business — to $29,000 in 2015 to $20,000 in 2016 and most recently $16,000 in 2017.

By the time 2018 ends later this month, Hanger said, “I think we’re going to be on par with last year, maybe a little up.”

Not included in those store sales, however, is between $5,000 to $7,000 that Hanger said she brings in each year online by auctioning autographed copies of books written by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, an “old friend” whom Hanger said she copy edited when she worked in publishing.

The autographed copies can auction for upward of hundreds of dollars apiece, and last year Hanger said she sold an autographed copy of Gaiman’s 2006 graphic novel How to Talk to Girls at Parties for $1,500.

Hanger said the annual winter auction of Gaiman’s autographed books, along with some from other writers, “get me through January until the end of winter. This is how Neil supports the store.”

The bids for the autographed books come in “from all around the world,” Hanger said.

“One woman was in Sweeden, one guy was in Scotland, and I’ve had a couple from Canada. ... I don’t think I’ve had anybody from the Upper Valley pay attention to the auction at all,” she said.

Hanger attributes the declining sales to the fewer people coming into downtown Bradford since Hill’s closed three years ago. With a Dollar General now open south of downtown and a Walmart located 15 miles north in Woodsville, N.H., Hanger noted that there is even less reason for shoppers to come into town.

“People come to Bradford for Farm-Way,” she said, referring to the popular outdoor apparel, sporting goods and home furnishings store near the intersection of routes 5 and 25 and a little ways from Interstate 91. “But now, with so little downtown, there is not a lot of impetus for people to shop here.”

One potentially encouraging sign is the recent opening of Thomson Fuels at the former Perry’s Oil Service location on Main Street, a new home fuel and unbranded gas pumps started by Orford lumber harvester and trucking company owner Stacy Thomson.

“People won’t have to go outside of town to outside of downtown to get gas,” Hanger said. “That’s an improvement.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.