In The News
The Case for Local Bookstores
By Erica Thoits
It's time you paid your neighborhood bookseller a visit
Books matter. More specifically, real books matter. Paper, glue and ink — holding the physical product of someone’s imagination in your hands beats a screen any day. Technology that expands access to reading and knowledge is a wonderful thing, but in our zeal for the next new, shiny thing, we shouldn’t forget the power of the actually written word.
If you can be convinced to put the Kindle down for a moment, then here’s what you should do next — resist the lure of Amazon’s “Buy now with one click!” button and go to an independent bookstore.
Blockbuster blinked out of existence with the digitization of movies, yet bookstores remain. New Hampshire is no exception — in fact, we have a rich history of bookselling here in the Granite State.
Gibson’s Bookstore was founded in 1898 and just so happens to be the oldest continuously operating retailer in the Concord area. It has, of course, changed over time, and for the better. For one thing, it offers far more books now than when Walter Gibson opened the doors in 1898. At that time, says current owner Michael Herrmann, it was “mostly stationery with some books.” In 2013, Gibson’s moved to its current location on South Main Street, partnered with True Brew Barista to open an in-store café, and purchased local toy store Imagination Village to incorporate educational toys and games. Today, it’s the largest independent bookstore in northern New England.
Though a store’s first order of business is, of course, staying in business, bookstores are also about bringing people together. With the café, kids’ area and a series of excellent events and readings, Gibson’s certainly does its part to foster a sense of connection and community.
“Bookstores are a natural gathering place and a natural arena in which to express community values,” says Herrmann, who is just the fifth owner of the store — once someone takes over, this shop seems to hold on tight.
“[A bookstore] is a place for conversation,” he adds. “It’s literally the place that holds the things that contain ideas.”
“When we share stories about books we love, there are these great conversations that can happen,” says Laura Cummings, owner of the charming White Birch Books in North Conway.
White Birch is what would happen if your somewhat eccentric neighbor opened up a bookstore in her home. As you step up onto the inviting porch of this house-turned-shop, you almost expect to see a living room through the purple door instead of a shop. But this business is just as welcoming as a sitting room.
It’s the kind of cozy place where you can imagine neighbors coming together to chat about what they’re reading, so it’s no surprise that the store is home to two popular book groups. “People new to town join to meet people. Friendships form. They don’t even have to like the same books; they just have to enjoy reading,” says Cummings.
She also works hard to make connections with the community by working with schools, becoming a regular on the radio and by taking the “show on the road,” otherwise known as “when I put books in my car and drive them somewhere,” says Cummings.
Community and meeting new people are all well and good, but don’t forget that bookstores are, at heart, about sharing the joy of reading.
If there’s one thing book enthusiasts and bookstore owners/employees love more than books (well, maybe equally), it’s talking about books. Walk into any bookstore, ask for advice on what to read next, and you’re guaranteed to find something new and unexpected. Go ahead and try telling Amazon that you loathed “Girl on a Train” but want to give mysteries with unreliable narrators another shot. A bookstore staffer would be all over that.
“The big truth is that real people are better than an algorithm and they’re always going to be,” says Cummings.
“Some people just want the next ‘it’ thing,” she adds, and that’s fine. But if you want to get off the bestseller list, head into the store. “Here, you’re going to get the quirky; you’re going to get the different,” she says. Sharing your likes and dislikes with people who love books is truly the best way to make new discoveries. No generated “recommended for you” list can match that.
Herrmann agrees: “What we do, you can’t find online.” Shopping online works if you know exactly what you want, “but if you’re not quite sure or if you’re open to serendipity, you can’t replicate that online. There’s nothing like browsing through a bookstore.”
There’s also no better place to find local authors — both their books and in person. White Birch, Gibson’s, Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, The Toadstool Bookshops in Milford, Keene and Peterborough, and RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth all have excellent authors series, which often feature local writers. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a local bookstore that doesn’t host events, from open-mic poetry readings to book signings and author talks. You can get up close to some of your literary idols at the ongoing “Writers on a New England Stage” series, which takes place at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, often in partnership with RiverRun. This past fall, Gibson’s did something similar with its wildly popular Bernie Sanders event that packed the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord.
But if it’s local talent you’re looking for, then definitely check out any one of Toadstool’s three locations.
Willard Williams was only 19 when he opened the first Toadstool Bookshop in 1972 in his hometown of Peterborough. About a decade later, the second store opened in Keene, followed by the Milford location in 1989. In the ’90s, the original Peterborough store moved to its current home, a 7,500-square-foot former A&P supermarket.
Though Toadstool offers a giant range of books from popular bestsellers to biographies, special care is taken to highlight New Hampshire’s writers.
Buying a locally written book from a local bookstore is the retail version of the farm-to-table restaurant. But even if you’re after the latest Nicholas Sparks, consider one of our many bookstores, each with its own personality, before you click the checkout button.
If supporting your local businesses isn’t reason enough to get you through the door, then just listen to Cummings: “If you walk into a bookstore, and this isn’t scientific, but you are 99 percent cooler than someone who doesn’t.”
White Birch Books Delights Readers with Friendly Staff and Great Selection
In recent years we may have seen the rise of electronic readers but according to a 2016 study released by the Pew Research Center, print book are still way more popular among American readers versus their mobile counterparts. That's good news for bookstores such as White Birch Books of North Conway, which has been the town's local independent bookstore for nearly a quarter century.
"White Birch Books is a local independent bookstore that services our local community as well as the many visitors to the area," says owner Laura Cummings. "We've been here for 24 years and counting. Our staff is friendly, personable and engaging. We all love what we do and I think it shows everyday."
The bookstore is set back from the town's main street, right next to Conway Scenic Railroad, in a quirky building featuring a porch and tower. Upon entering, Cummings says that the first thing new visitors usually exclaim is, "Wow, I didn't know this place was so big." The store carries all of the latest bestsellers and popular reads as well as a children's section and a greeting card area. And being situated in the beautiful White Mountains region of the state, a special section is dedicated to material about the local area and by local authors.
"We try to offer a little bit of everything here at the store, but we do have our definite strengths," explains Cummings. "We live in an area known for its natural beauty and history, so we have very vital local and outdoor sections, including local history books, hiking and climbing guides and nature guides. We are also all voracious readers here, so almost every section has staff recommendations. In addition to all the newly released books, we also carry bargain priced books, a small selection of used books and local collectible books as well."
For bargain hunters, the store keeps a running display of the top ten list from the national Indie Bestseller list that feature discounted prices. There is also a large selection of bargain priced books as well as gently used reads and the store occasionally holds special sales.
To help foster relationships between other reading enthusiasts, the store proudly hosts two book clubs: one on Thursday evenings, and a Mystery Book Club that discusses mystery and thrillers. White Birch Books also hosts many events such as author evenings, poetry readings, classes, and more.
No matter how much our world may get altered by technology, reading will probably never go out of style. Cummings believes everyone needs to be reading now, more than ever. "Reading is important for so many reasons, but for basic reasons I think it helps develop your mind, introduce you to new things and expand your imagination," she says. "It is even more crucial now as there seem to be so many divides in our society?reading a good book is one very easy way to get a look into another culture, another country or another experience. It appears we could all use a little more broadening of the mind."
Community keeps them alive: An Interview with an Independent Bookseller
By: Brianna Meagher
North Conway, NH – Owning an independent bookstore isn’t easy, especially today, but according to bookstore owner Laura Cummings, it’s worth it. Cummings owns White Birch Books located in the tourist town of North Conway, N. H. She purchased the store back in 2005 from Donna Urey, the founder of White Birch Books, after realizing her Chamber of Commerce job might not be the right fit for her and her lifestyle. She started when Urey “offered [her] a part time job” and she said that talk began immediately about her buying the store in the near future. But it hasn’t all been easy for Cummings. She purchased the store right before what she referred to as a “perfect storm of nastiness as far as being a bookseller goes.” What she’s talking about here is a combination of a recession, the advent of online sellers like Amazon, and large chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble. The late 2000s were a rough time for independent booksellers and many stores closed their doors during this time. Cummings said that she survived “by the skin of [her] teeth and you know a little bit of infusions, some cash infusions from family” and she said that she “wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.” Her family and the community surrounding her are the reason that White Birch Books is still around and thriving
Cummings said that although nobody’s getting rich in the independent bookstore
business, “there certainly has been a resurgence of late.” She attributes that to the experience that people seek out at bookstores like hers. You don’t get a face-to-face interaction when you purchase a book online. The staff at White Birch Books are “real people with personalities and they see us around [town]” and that’s the personable aspect that online sellers like Amazon are missing. She said that sites these have “really tried to turn books into a commodity” and although they are in one sense, the part that “the independent bookstores keep alive are the stories and
getting the stories to the right people.” You don’t get that connection when you type in your credit card number and press ‘checkout’ online.
Unlike sites such as Amazon, independent bookstores are often considered to be “a
community third place,” according to Cummings. She explained that “your first place is your home, your second place is your work, and a lot of people need a third place” and “as a bookstore, we feel that we’re kind of that third place for people in our community.” Cummings said that it’s a place where people feel comfortable; a place they go to relax, de-stress, and meet new people. She creates this community centered atmosphere because, she stressed that “community is important.” She has watched friendships begin between the bookshelves in her store and “after a few months go by you realize they’re golfing together, playing bridge together, or skiing together.” White Birch Books not only serves locals but also serves a large tourist population and Cummings said that the store “couldn’t rely on just our local visitors and same as we couldn’t rely on just tourists.” They cultivate both needs by keeping the shelves stocked and having “a lot of local events and programs like book groups, author events, and things like that to make it worthwhile for the people who live here.” It’s a great place to stop by when you’re just visiting the area and also an awesome location for getting involved and meeting new people if you live close by.
One author in particular that always hosts events with White Birch Books is New York Times bestseller Lisa Gardner. She recently teamed up with White Birch Books to promote her new book Find Her. The event, hosted at Horsefeathers Restaurant by White Birch Books Feb. 8, featured a talk followed by a book signing. Cummings said that they “have been very lucky to host her debut book event for probably like the last ten years or so” since she’s a New Hampshire native herself. Around 100 guests attended the event and it was widely publicized on the White Birch Books Facebook and Twitter pages. Cummings said that events like these are critical for her business because that’s where you draw people in. She said that she feels like a hostess and tries to connect with each attendee to make sure they’re having a good time. She explained that “it’s very important to put the face to the business” and events like these are crucial to gaining those connections to new potential customers.
Overall, Cummings said that the community of bookselling is “a fantastic community” and that she has “made great friends working [at White Birch Books.]” The community and the people surrounding these bookstores are the reason they are still thriving today. It’s the stories behind the books that connect people and make them want to come back for more. According to Cummings, “if I was selling shoes, I wouldn’t be that excited about it.”
Brianna Meagher is a sophomore at Endicott College.