Found Downtown: For the love of local bookstores
Editor’s note: Montpelier resident Marija Zagarins will be writing about Central Vermont’s independent businesses every other week.
I have a confession.
Even though I live within a two-minute walk of three of Montpelier’s independent bookstores, I’ve bought most of the books I own through major online sellers.
The process of Internet shopping has become so convenient that I often do it when I only have a free minute or two, which is time enough to purchase something, but not to reflect on whether I really need it.
Often, as in the case of a 2-inch thick manual called “Building Construction” that I recently bought online for my infant nephew, I come to see these compulsive orders as mistakes and expensive flower presses.
Recently I had an opportunity to speak with Claire Benedict of Montpelier’s Bear Pond Books. Unaware of my secret, she said, “This is a community that understands that if you’re going to have a store in your downtown, you have to go to the store in your downtown. You can’t just say that you value it and then buy online.”
Then Benedict defined a major difference between her shop and online sellers: “We’re nice to you when you come in. We chat with you. We spend a lot of time researching, finding, tracking down and ordering books for you if we don’t already have what you’re looking for. It’s personalized service.”
With her words weighing on my conscience, I made a resolution to atone for my previous crimes against local booksellers and start shopping for good reads downtown. In so doing, not only would I reduce my chances of making ill-informed decisions and give myself something to feel good about, but I’d also put an end to shipping fees.
I set out to visit five local bookstores and make at least one purchase at each.
Bear Pond Books
Reading mystery books is one of my greatest pleasures, but finding good ones can be difficult. Fortunately, Bear Pond keeps a secret weapon to help match almost any reader with a good mystery, and his name is George Spaulding.
Spaulding hosts monthly Mystery Book Club meetings at Bear Pond and lists the club’s book recommendations in a regular email newsletter. He divides his working hours between Bear Pond and Kellogg-Hubbard Library, and quite possibly knows every Central Vermonter who reads.
Each month, the club selects two books on a unifying theme or topic to discuss. When I mentioned that I enjoy nonfiction as well as mystery, Spaulding recommended “Nothing to Envy,” about the lives of six North Koreans over a period of 15 years; and James Church’s “A Corpse in the Koryo,” the first in the Inspector O series about a North Korean policeman. Not only were these both page-turners, but as staff picks I got them for a 15 percent discount.
The Book Garden
Also in downtown Montpelier, The Book Garden is reputed to offer one of the largest and finest selections of sci-fi and graphic novels in the area. I visited the shop with the goal of finding a book for my boyfriend, Kurt, who brags that he hasn’t read anything since college.
The shopkeeper, Randy, asked a few basic questions about Kurt’s age and hobbies, ruled out Manga and fan fiction, and finally directed me to a display table with literature about home-building. Kurt dreams of building his own house, and so I chose a colorful volume called “Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter” by Lloyd Kahn. He says he likes it.
With its wall-to-wall carpeting, cushioned chairs and abundance of aisle space, Barre’s Next Chapter offers one of the calmest and most comfortable environments for book-browsing of the five shops I visited.
I was looking for a book for my toddler nephew, and all I had to do was mention to the shopkeeper that Charlie loves trucks and singing. Without hesitating, he directed me to Boni Ashburn’s “Builder Goose,” a book of rhymes about construction vehicles. Perfect.
Plainfield’s Country Bookshop is housed on the first floor of a lopsided wooden building which, barring a horse in the yard, could be mistaken for Pippi Longstocking’s Villa Villekulla.
The dusty shop offers used books in every genre from fiction to folklore, and specializes in sheet music, first editions and autographed books. While its endless supply could fill a wing at the Library of Congress, the staff is efficient at guiding customers to the books they need.
I mentioned that I wanted something to inspire my green thumb, and within minutes I was handed a tattered volume called “Onward and Upward in the Garden.” This collection of gardening essays, written by Katharine S. White (wife of E.B.) for The New Yorker in the 1950s and 1960s, would delight growers and non-growers alike.
I was running out of cash by the time I visited Rivendell in Montpelier. But since the shop accepts used books for store credit, I brought along a bag filled with old paperbacks I was willing to part with. (For the ruthless downsizer, Rivendell accepts up to two boxes or two bags per person.)
The shopkeeper who took my bag told me I’d be contacted when my books had sold, and at that point I’d have the option of taking half their selling price in store credit or 25 percent in cash.
Rivendell offers an ever-changing selection of new, used and collectible books, including a complete first-edition set of Mark Twain’s works.
It’s the sort of store that encourages browsing, and I was pleased to rediscover Sue Grafton, a mystery writer I enjoyed in high school. Having only made it through “J is for Justice” in her alphabet detective series, I picked up a $4 copy of “S is for Silence.”
In the process of leaving my computer and getting access to personalized service at each bookstore, I was able to make choices that I doubt I’ll regret. That’s more than I can say for that construction tome I bought online.
As for that, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that my nephew doesn’t move on to other interests (except maybe flower-pressing) before he’s ready to read it.