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Montpelier, Vermont: You Are What You Read

Rivendell Books, one of three independent bookstores in Montpelier, Vt. (Carol Towson)

experiences

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This is the second of two pieces about bookstores and community. The first was A Bookstore Brings A Sense Of Community To Medford.
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MONTPELIER, Vt. — Montpelier feels like the dictionary definition of community, a place where everybody seemingly knows the name of everyone else. And almost all of them wear it as a badge of pride that they’re the country’s only state capital without a McDonald’s. It’s also the smallest, with a population of 8000.

What they do have, in spades, are independent book stores – three of them — as well as an independent music store. Does the sense of community lead to the plethora of the stores or vice versa? It’s kind of a chicken and egg question.

Claire Benedict and her husband, Robert Kasow, own the two on Main Street – Bear Pond Books, which sells new books, and Rivendell Books, which specializes in used books, though also has new ones. They both have the comfortable feel of a place where books are more of a passion than a job. As does The Book Garden, around the corner on State Street, with its own specialties.

Bear Pond Books. (Carol Towson)

Bear Pond Books. (Carol Towson)

“It’s really about the community,” says Benedict. “They understood buying local around here before everyone else did. There’s a social conscience about almost everything here. They’re eager to support local businesses with a community spirit, so people have always felt an affinity for independent stores even before the rise of the big-box stores and Amazon … There are no big box stores in town, so we didn’t get hit as hard as other places.”

The couple moved to Montpelier to buy Rivendell 10 years ago and Bear Pond four years later. “We followed that fantasy – move to Vermont and open a bookstore,” she said, before laughing and adding, “Most people don’t do that for a good reason, but we went for it.” Bear Pond will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer. “We have people who grew up here and are now bringing in their kids. People here love it even more when it becomes something they can hand down.”

The next generation is even tighter than the current one if Benedict, Kasow and The Book Garden’s Rick Powell are any indication. “Their son and my daughter went through school together and were best friends,” says Powell. “We all get along. I caught a shoplifter who was stealing from them and selling to me – graphic novels. They looked brand new so I called them and they said, ‘Yeah, he was just here.’ ‘’

The Montpelier constabulary was called in and the crime wave was over, though Benedict adds that shoplifting isn’t a one-time problem. Powell agrees about the community nature of the business, but also points to the demographics of the population. “There are a lot of smart people here and smart people tend to read. We have these long winters and you have to have something to do,” he laughs. “Here a lot of people read.”

The Book Garden. (Courtesy of The Book Garden)

The Book Garden. (Courtesy of The Book Garden)

In terms of niches, “There are several categories people are looking for. One is sustainable living – backyard farming, gardening, foraging, nature books in general. Also, do it yourself skills. Vermont is known for people taking care of themselves, fixing things. A lot of people are looking for that kind of book. New Age and Eastern religion are also big.”

What struck my eye, though, was the strong collection of books that touch on the fantastic. My life, at least as a bookreader, flashed before my eyes with hardcover used editions of Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Doolittle” and Robert Louis Stevenson stories. I met Powell as I was thumbing through “Preludes & Nocturnes,” Neil Gaiman’s first graphic collection of “The Sandman,” a book I had often thought of getting. He stopped to talk about what a great book it was and I figured it was time to take the plunge.

“I’ve always personally liked illustrated books with good artwork,” says Powell. “That’s the part of the store that’s me – illustrated classics, magic cards, art books. I try to have as large a selection of graphic novels as I can. I’m an artist myself. That’s my artwork on the walls.” He was also the illustrator for the children’s book, “Who’s Haunting the White House?” which came out about eight years ago.

Bear Pond does traditional readings – local author Jamaica Kinkaid was there recently – but The Book Garden does its community outreach through Friday night games, mostly for the 12-20 set with some dads thrown in.

Another difference between him and the Main Street competition is their attitude toward Amazon. “People ask, ‘How can the town support three bookstores? Honestly, it doesn’t,” says Powell. “I wouldn’t be here without Amazon. A third of my sales are from Amazon. I’ve made adjustments in the ways I cater to the community, but that is not enough to make it work. The two things work together. There are a lot of readers, they like to recycle. People trade them in and I sell the, often online.”

Benedict, who thinks the next big test for indies is ebooks, sounds like she’s talking about the antichrist when she mentions Amazon. “We don’t sell through Amazon, we don’t like doing business the way they do. They’re our competition and it’s not like they’re friendly competition. They’re distasteful competition.”

There’s nothing distasteful about Montpelier bookstores, though, and if it takes Amazon to make the city’s Garden grow, so be it.

Part of Buch Spieler's vinyl collection. (Carol Towson)

Part of Buch Spieler’s vinyl collection. (Carol Towson)

Perhaps even more surprising than seeing three bookstores make a go of it in Montpelier is seeing Buch Spieler Music continue to operate when so many stores like it in Boston and Cambridge have ceded territory to digital downloads and shut down.

Founder Fred Wilber — also in 1973, same year as Bear Pond — is still the owner, though Knayte Lander, the general manager, runs the day-to-day operations of the store. He says “The issue for a lot of people is not adapting to the times. For years the owner or clerks would have carte blanche to order whatever they wanted. To do that today is too difficult. We have a pretty concise base of what we work with and it ends up being good for us.”

Much of that base doesn’t have anything to do with CDs. “The resurgence of vinyl in people’s minds coincides with the onslaught of digital,” he says. “Vinyl has been my passion all my life. Having people understand more about sound is refreshing.”

There is something sensual, not merely nostalgic, in going through the racks of LPs that Buch Spieler has, as well as sensing that everyone in the store is experiencing the same thing. “The Internet pushes people not to connect with each other,” says Lander. “The nature of a record store is the interaction of people in a place that isn’t their house. There’s something to be said for coming into a record store and just looking around.”

There sure is. Whether Montpelier is the land that time forgot — remember when you could spend a day in Harvard Square just shopping for albums and books? — or a wave of the future, visitors are constantly amazed by the city with the small-town feel.

When I interviewed Matthew Tannenbaum, owner of The Bookstore in Lenox for the Boston Globe eight years ago he said, ‘People come into the store and say, ‘We used to have a bookstore just like this. I wonder what happened to it,’ ” Tannenbaum noted. ”And I feel like saying, ‘You chose convenience and discounts.’ ”

Most people aren’t exactly rolling in dough in Montpelier, least of all book and record establishments, but they do have their priorities straight.

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What’s in the bookbag?
It’s hard for me to go into an independent book or record store and not buy something. Here’s the latest loot:

  • Herman Koch, “The Dinner,” Bestsellers Cafe.
  • George Saunders, “Pastoralia,” Bear Pond Books.
  • “The Stanley Kubrick Interviews,” Rivendell Books.
  • Neil Gaiman, “The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes,” The Book Garden.

Also, I noticed that Bear Pond Books had the hardcover “Selected Novels and Short Stories” of Patricia Highsmith, but my wife was with me and knows that I have them all in softcover. So when she wasn’t looking I snuck back to town and bought it. Don’t tell her.

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