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Browsing Grounds 

Touring some of Vermont's quirkier bookstores

Is the printed page on its way out? According to Gartner Inc., an information technology research company, sales of e-readers could top 11 million in 2011 — a 68 percent increase over this year.

Tell that to local readers who love to browse. Even as new bestsellers go digital, the books of our collective past stick with us. And as long as elderly Vermonters continue to empty the contents of their attics into used bookstores, bibliophiles will have new realms to explore.

While Vermont boasts its share of strong independent book retailers, the state is also a mother lode for those in search of secondhand volumes. The Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association currently lists 58 members, quite a few of whom still do business from brick-and-mortar shops.

Like restaurants, these stores have distinct personalities, and sometimes their own microbestsellers. Want a shop that specializes in poetry and mysteries, with owners who are passionate about both and regularly bring authors from out of state? Try Kingdom Books in Waterford. Want to know which new books sell best in Caledonia County? Talk to the owner of the Galaxy Bookshop.

We sampled the fare at five of the state’s small booksellers (four of them offering primarily used stock). One owner contributed his own “menu” of notable books.

But this is just a taste, of course. To find out about stores in your area — or plan a statewide tour — visit VABA at www.vermontisbookcountry.com or at its annual fairs. (Last year there were two, in Burlington and Brattleboro.) The New England Independent Booksellers Association (www.newenglandbooks.org) lists new booksellers. Happy hunting!

— M.H.

Rivendell Books, Montpelier

Pet gerbils once inhabited the children’s section at Rivendell Books in downtown Montpelier. But the trouble with rodents is, they’re always dying, and that’s tough on the kids. So, when store co-owners Robert Kasow and his wife, Claire Benedict, heard about a Russian tortoise in Barre needing a home, they knew they’d found their match. Those critters live forever.

Veruca Salt, named after the rich brat from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now occupies a 3-foot-long wooden pen amid colorful shelves of children’s books. Local kids are obsessed with him and visit him regularly after school. Yes, him — Veruca was named through an informal poll of Rivendell regulars before his gender was determined.

Back in 2004, when Kasow and Benedict bought the used-book store, they dreamed of this kind of thing — not the tortoise, exactly, but the prospect of creating a cool environment in which their own children could grow up.

Kasow likes books, but that didn’t drive his decision to buy a bookstore. Before Rivendell, he owned a paint-and-wallpaper store in the Boston area. The stress of working with contractors was high, though, and Kasow started itching for a lifestyle change. He wanted to sell people something that made them happy. “That was really important to me after getting my head bashed in for 15 years in the paint business,” he says.

What a change he found. Rivendell has creaking floors and shelves that sag under the weight of 20,000 titles. People mill about silently, losing themselves in the stacks. Then they emerge to chat with whoever is working the desk that day.

“Our specialty is that we don’t specialize,” says Kasow. He considers the store a reflection of the community — diverse, but with extra-large sections for fiction, spirituality, art, cooking and children’s books.

In 2006, the couple bought Bear Pond Books, which sells new books across the street. The stores are symbiotic, Kasow says. When customers can’t find what they’re looking for in one place, it’s easy to send them to try the other.

When it comes to selling books in Montpelier, Kasow says he and Benedict are in it “for the duration.” As for Veruca, who’s now about 12, he should be going strong for at least another 60 years. “He’s in the will,” Kasow says. “He’s a family heirloom.”

— M.J.

Northfield Bookstore, Northfield

A bookstore isn’t the first thing you’d expect to find at the far end of Northfield’s central Depot Square, between a hardware store and the American Legion. Nor would you expect to find a New York City transplant inside, presiding over a carefully curated selection that ranges from the newest Stieg Larsson to tiny hymnals published in 1827.

When customers discover he sells mainly used books, says owner Gerard Holmes, 45, “some people will be puzzled and walk out.” When teens who love Twilight or Harry Potter come in, he does his best to “guide them through” the store to writers reminiscent of their favorites. Holmes limits his selection of new titles, he says, “because people go up to Walmart.”

The bookstore has been around since 2003, but Holmes has owned it for only the past two years. When he first encountered Northfield Books, he was working at Manhattan nonprofits and visiting friends in Vermont who knew the then-owners. The store struck him as a “wonderful place to come every day.”

In this small college town, Holmes says his clientele is diverse: “There are the people who want to walk out with 10 romance novels, and the ones who want to dig through the obscure stuff.” He tries to satisfy both factions.

Some of the “obscure stuff” comes from the library of nearby Norwich University, which gives Holmes first dibs on its deaccessioned books. (In keeping with the school’s affiliations, he maintains a strong military-history section.) Other books come from people’s attics. Sorting through them is “like Christmas every day,” says Holmes, who especially likes 19th-century lit — such as his Victorian copy of What Can a Woman Do, once considered a daring guide for aspiring career women.

Even as he teaches kids to navigate the stacks, Holmes wonders about the future of reading. “Will there be a difference between owned and borrowed books?” he asks. Already, on the Internet, “everything is about content.”

But content, of course, needs presentation, which is why Holmes — who honed his salesmanship with fundraising jobs — sent us an annotated list of “interesting books” in his store. (See sidebar.)

— M.H.

The Country Bookshop, Plainfield

Back in the ’80s, when Ben Koenig ran The Country Bookshop out of a winterized barn in downtown Plainfield, he would close on Sundays. He and his family lived upstairs, and they’d hang a big sign on the door and turn off the shop lights. But that didn’t keep book collectors from finding their way in.

“We’d be eating breakfast and I’d hear sounds coming from downstairs,” Koenig says. “You’d go down, and in the dark there’d be people on the floor looking through stuff.”

“Didn’t you see the sign?” Koenig would ask them.

“Yeah, but the door was open,” they’d reply, barely looking up from the spines they were scanning.

“That kind of misbehavior doesn’t happen anymore,” Koenig says — and he misses it. He suspects many of those people, the diehard collectors, have moved their searches to the Internet.

At 68, Koenig has sold books and other paper ephemera for 36 years. His shop, now in a huge white house on Mill Street, boasts 50,000 books, all of which he owns. Koenig is a collector himself. He’s been collecting books on bells — plus the bells themselves, bell-themed postcards and even receipts for 19th-century village bell ringers — since the ’60s.

Why bells? A musician himself, Koenig spent many years teaching children to make music. A book — Satis Coleman’s Creative Music for Children — convinced him bells were perfect tools for kids. He started buying them for his students, then for himself, then researching their history and use. Before he knew it, he had started a collection.

“It sounds rational for me to explain to you why bells,” Koenig says, “but it isn’t rational.”

Koenig says he’s often felt torn between braving the world’s new technologies and embracing his shop’s dinosaur status. He sells books online, but laments that his storage room for outgoing books has begun to overflow into the Americana browsing section.

Lately, he’s noticed that young people who come into the shop and are baffled by what they see — so many books on so many topics, filling the narrow passageways and creaky-floored rooms of an entire house. Some fall in love. Others are intimidated.

“Some people — and this is kind of sad for me — don’t know how to browse a bookshelf like this,” says Koenig, gesturing at the expansive folklore section.

For Koenig, it’s so intuitive — compulsive, almost — he says he can’t be in a room with a bookshelf without stopping to investigate what it holds.

On a wall by the entrance to his shop hangs a photograph of a bombed-out London bookstore during World War II. Beams and bricks have crashed into the center of the room, but the bookshelves are still standing. Amid the seeming chaos, two men calmly peruse the titles. “I’d be there, too,” Koenig says.

— M.J.

Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick

Linda Ramsdell never planned on owning a bookstore. Growing up in Craftsbury, she dreamed of being a detective. Later, she toyed with the idea of social work. But, after she graduated from Brown and returned to the Northeast Kingdom, a friend suggested Hardwick needed a bookstore, and Ramsdell, then a 24-year-old bookworm, figured, Why not?

She opened in 1988 in a 150-square-foot space inside a downtown antique store. One of her first ads in the local newspaper boasted, “Over 100 books available.”

These days, Galaxy Bookshop is 10 times that size and housed in a 100-year-old bank building in downtown Hardwick. The marble floor is marked by deep divots, worn down in the spots where people once stood at the tellers’ stations. Children’s books and toys are neatly displayed in the former vault, its hulking door adorned with drawings. The checkout counter sits at the old bank drive-through, which Ramsdell actually uses.

“We call it the storyteller’s drive-up window,” she says. She’ll often drop a book order in the drawer, which slides open to the outside, so customers can swing by after business hours to pick it up. On hot summer days, friends of the shop have been known to pull up and deposit a treat for whoever’s working that day: an ice-cream sandwich or a cold beer.

Ramsdell says she’s thought about restoring the drive-up’s microphone so that, when she spots customers walking down the street — in a town like Hardwick, that’s a strong possibility — she can flip on the speaker and notify them their book is in.

Then again, she says, maybe the summons would be a little creepy?

Galaxy sells mostly new books, with a noticeable focus on nitty-gritty how-to guides on topics such as house building and woodcutting. Ramsdell also has a small antiquarian section she’s hoping to expand, which includes some cool pop-up circus books. Local authors have a huge presence. Galaxy’s bestseller this season is Vermont Wild: Adventures of Vermont Fish & Game Wardens, in which journalist Megan Price tells stories from former warden Eric Nuse.

The books aren’t always piled as neatly as Ramsdell would like, the fault of two resident cats, Scout and Jem — yes, names borrowed from To Kill a Mockingbird — who leap across display tables between naps. But the curled-up kitties make for a warm atmosphere that customers love.

After 22 years in the business, Ramsdell has discovered she gets to play both the roles she once imagined for herself — piecing together clues and offering counsel to match people up with just the right book.

— M.J.

The Eloquent Page, St. Albans

At the Eloquent Page, you can find whole shelves of books labeled Futuristic Romance and Time Travel Romance. You can find vintage Scholastic paperbacks, bound volumes of UVM’s Vermont Cynic from the World War I years, doll-collecting guides, series books about Jedi knights, matching sets of Victor Hugo novels and a 1963 UVM yearbook. You can find a cookbook called Thoughts for Buffets by “a group of Chicago hostesses” (1958) not far from The Book of Tofu (1979).

Books — about 35,000 of them — are piled to the ceiling of this unassuming space in a strip mall in downtown St. Albans. It’s a good place for pulp hunters, in part because owner Donna Howard sells most paperbacks for 60 percent of their cover price regardless of vintage. So a funky-covered Clifford D. Simak science-fiction novel from 1950 is 24 cents, versus about $3 on Amazon.com.

Howard opened the Eloquent Page in 1992 with a friend — who dropped out quickly, Howard says, when she realized the business involved a lot more than reading. Now her co-owner is her mom, Marilyn.

The Howards sell a few books on the Internet, but their clientele consists mostly of walk-ins — locals and tourists who “make the circuit of used bookstores,” says Howard. About 1 percent of books she stocks are new, including a perennial local favorite called Mocking Justice, a 1989 account of “Vermont’s biggest drug scandal” by journalist Hamilton E. Davis.

As we chat, Howard pauses several times to greet walk-ins who want to know what she’ll pay for their old books. “Once you have a storefront, you have people bringing them in by the truckload,” she says.

And, unlike many other VABA members, the Howards are in their store six days a week. “Other stores are doing mainly online,” says Howard, “because that’s where the money is.” But she likes traditional bookstores, she says, and “we have enough support from the local community to keep our doors open. Some people still like to handle books.”

Leafing through old Nancy Drews or the store’s selection of glossy tomes on fashion and costume — a resource for local theater designers, says Howard — it’s easy to see why.

— M.H.

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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