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Rumors of the Bookstore’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

There must be something in the water. Something about sand and sunshine that inspire us to throw magazines and paperback books in our canvas bags when we head to the beach. But a visit to any of the bookstores along the Connecticut coastline makes it clear that it isn’t just summer beach reads that shoppers are after. Reading definitely isn’t seasonal. Around here, it’s unseasonably against trend.

Of the more than two dozen bookstores still independently run in the state of Connecticut, over a quarter are located along the coast between Essex and Guilford, and the number is growing, despite the popularity of e-readers like Kindle and Nook.
Annie Philbrick, co-owner with Patience Banister of Bank Square Books in Mystic, gestures toward a snappy little e-reader called a Kobo. It’s propped up prominently near a display of “real” books. Kobo, unlike the Kindle, does not offer Internet access. You can only read books on it.

“It’s here to give our customers that option,”she says, “but it hasn’t cut into book sales.” In fact, Bank Square Books just recently expanded, taking over the space next door and adding an event space on the second floor.

The whole street has a slightly new face since Superstorm Sandy forced some changes, but the feel is still a comfortable combination of upscale shopping and small-town friendliness. Inside Bank Square, shoppers chat and admire oversized books, page through cookbooks, and get lost in the first pages of a novel they’re carrying to the register. Little kids find nooks where they can play with stuffed animals that are characters from the books they know or run their little fingers over the glossy words in a chunky book.

“That’s how you get hooked,” says Sarah Myers, a Bank Square regular. “My first book was Dr. Seuss’ Hop on Pop.” That was a while ago. Myers, a grownup now, owns over 2,000 books, and she’s running out of places to store them. She’s considering doing what a friend of hers did: stack a few dozen on the floor and put a glass top over them and make a coffee table.

For book junkies like Myers, it’s just a few miles to the next fix at Monte Cristo Bookshop in New London, co-owned by Chris and Gina Jones and their new baby Evan. Along with new books, Monte Cristo sells used books, there’s a section called Retro Books organized by decade, and valuable first editions are secreted away for passionate buyers.

With its hardwood floors, tin ceilings, and homey kitchen tables and chairs, Monte Cristo looks more like somebody’s house than a bookstore. Says Jones, “When we go about buying books, we think, ‘Will our customers like this?’ Then we set about creating an atmosphere where readers can talk. Here people can learn about new books besides the obvious best sellers. You can’t do that when you buy a book online.”

Jones entered the book business with eyes wide open, realistic about the future of books versus electronic readers. “People are excited about gadgets, but hard numbers are the truth,” he says. “Sales of eBooks have plateaued. Hardcovers still outsell eBooks. We looked at the numbers, the competition, and we used all our savings, sold everything we owned, and raised the rest on a crowd-funding website.” He was surprised to see that 80% of the money raised came from out-of-state contributors.
“It was like New London was going to have a bookstore whether they liked it or not,” he says. Monte Cristo has just celebrated its first successful year.

“E-readers replacing books?” Grahame Burton, a handsome gentleman with white hair and an English accent, is the sole proprietor of Harbor Books in Old Saybrook. He chooses the rocking chair when he sits to chat. “Television didn’t replace theatre. Netflix hasn’t replaced going to the movies.” When Burton retired as vice president of a cruise line 12 years ago, he bought Harbor Books, which was a fixture on Main Street and now the last remaining bookstore in town. Even with more than 40,000 books, it’s still little more than a tiny slice of a building.

Once principally a used bookstore, Harbor Books now carries more new books. “Children’s books, of course,” he says, picking up Goodnight, Moon,
“and of course a lot of nautical
books. No new Danielle Steele
or James Patterson. People tend
to buy those at the grocery
store.” He welcomes local
authors and caters to, in his
words, more discerning readers.
Bookshelves floor to ceiling and just enough space for a tête-à-tête near the window in front, Harbor Books is Burton’s idea of a perfect retirement.

Darcy Bruce works at the Book Barn in Niantic. “I love the feel of a solid book, the smell.” She shrugs. “It drives my boyfriend Alex a little crazy. I read for hours at night. Sometimes he’ll get into bed and have to fight his way through the books to get some space. I tell him, ‘Well, they came to bed before you did.’”

“As long as there are human beings and their imaginations, foibles, and ideas, we’ll always have books,” says Maureen Corcoran. Corcoran, who has worked for Breakwater Books in Guilford for more years than she would admit to, has owned the store the last seven years. Solely a new bookstore, Breakwater carries books for all ages—nearly 30% of her sales are children’s books—but she decided not to sell eBooks or readers.

“Not that I worry about eBooks outselling ‘real’ books. The real competition is not electronic books, but online vendors in general. They put all independent store owners at risk.”

But she maintains that bookstores create a community. “That won’t be lost just because people are buying eBooks. There’s room for both, and those of us who are still selling conventional books are keeping up the tradition.”

In Madison, readers of all ages go to R.J. Julia Booksellers, whose tagline is: A great place to meet books. It’s also a place for writers to meet readers. The store hosts over 350 author events and book signings a year; it’s a prime destination stop on major author book tours.

Randi and Maureen White can’t retire. “Or die,” adds Randi. He throws his hands up in mock despair. “What would become of all this?”

All this is The Book Barn in Niantic with its 500,000 used books, three locations, six buildings, a barn, and an 1813 farmhouse where Randi and his wife Maureen live with their daughter. Not to mention the gardens, the seven cats, the goat, and the ghost.

“We started with three bookcases in the basement,” says Randi White. “Now look.” A crooked staircase winds up to what was once a hayloft. There are books on tables, books on shelves, books in boxes and cartons. Outside there are books in wagons, books in crates, under umbrellas, stashed in sheds, and clutched in the sweaty hands of passionate shoppers. Cats are curled up between fiction and nonfiction, rubbing against ankles, and begging at the door to go out—or come in. You know how cats are.

It’s hard to believe that anyone could actually find the one book he or she was looking for, but apparently there’s a system. When a boy came in looking for a particular author, he was directed to a tiny wooden building called The Last Page. Minutes later, the kid came back with his find.

Darcy Bruce works at the Book Barn in Niantic. “I love the feel of a solid book, the smell.” She shrugs. “It drives my boyfriend Alex a little crazy. I read for hours at night. Sometimes he’ll get into bed and have to fight his way through the books to get some space. I tell him, ‘Well, they came to bed before you did.’”

“As long as there are human beings and their imaginations, foibles, and ideas, we’ll always have books,” says Maureen Corcoran. Corcoran, who has worked for Breakwater Books in Guilford for more years than she would admit to, has owned the store the last seven years. Solely a new bookstore, Breakwater carries books for all ages—nearly 30% of her sales are children’s books—but she decided not to sell eBooks or readers.

“Not that I worry about eBooks outselling ‘real’ books. The real competition is not electronic books, but online vendors in general. They put all independent store owners at risk.”

But she maintains that bookstores create a community. “That won’t be lost just because people are buying eBooks. There’s room for both, and those of us who are still selling conventional books are keeping up the tradition.”

In Madison, readers of all ages go to R.J. Julia Booksellers, whose tagline is: A great place to meet books. It’s also a place for writers to meet readers. The store hosts over 350 author events and book signings a year; it’s a prime destination stop on major author book tours.

Sprawling on several levels, R.J. Julia is jam-packed with all things readable. The staff are ardent readers themselves, knowledgeable about R.J. Julia customers and, according to their website, “fiercely committed to putting the right book in the right hand.” All over the store are handwritten staff suggestions displayed on white cards called “shelf-talkers.” And when the hunger for books is overtaken by “real” hunger, there is the R.J. Café & Bistro.

This is a place born out of one woman’s love of reading and commitment to literacy. Over 20 years ago, Roxanne Coady left an enviable position with an international accounting firm and bought the building on the Boston Post Road, which had been abandoned for years. It was renovated with care to preserve its charm and history and has become R.J. Julia Booksellers’ remarkable home.

In addition to creating this lively, always morphing hub for book lovers, Coady is a fervent advocate for literacy. She founded Read to Grow, a Connecticut nonprofit organization that provides books and encouragement to new parents and Justtherightbook.com, a personalized book-of-the-month club. A leading authority on book trends, she’s a familiar guest on television and radio shows.

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