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Ask Chris Morrow, the second-generation owner of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, about his competition. He bypasses Barnes & Noble, even though there is one ten minutes away from the second Northshire store in Saratoga Springs, New York. 

Instead, Chris cuts straight to the meat, and at the same time reminds us of the strength of independent bookstores. 

“Our real competition is Amazon,” said Chris without hesitation. “They’ve done a good job of devaluing books. But we find people are willing to pay for the serendipity and the feeling of discovery they get when they come to our store.”

That experience is a result of the ethos that started with Chris’s parents, Ed and Barbara when they opened the store in 1976. 

“Listening to our customers,” said Chris. “Right from the very beginning, that was what my folks did. They listened to the customers about what products to bring in, and what books to carry. We’ve always been in touch with our customers that way.”

It is a business principle that has paid off well.  Northshire is having one of their best years. According to Chris, people still want the physical book. They are still looking to discover their next read in an uplifting environment. 

“We don’t expect it to go away,” said Chris. 

Barbara Morrow reveals they did it because it was something they believed in. Both the elder Morrows, however, quickly admit that there were many things they didn’t know about running a bookstore. Soon after opening they found that their 1,000-square foot store had little room for inventory.  Boxes of books soon began appearing in the next logical place, the family home. 

“We were novices,” admitted Barbara. “We didn’t know what this was going to entail.”

This overcrowding went on for twelve years, while Ed and Barbra found themselves becoming experts at space utilization. Listening to their customers made things even more challenging as they found the need to respond to a clear hunger for children’s books. 

A solution came in 1986. The Coburn Inn, a local hotel in Manchester Center, had gone bankrupt, standing vacant for two years. Ed and Barbra recognized the importance of the building’s location in the downtown area and purchased it at auction. It took another two grueling years to open the new store. During that time Ed admits that what he didn’t know about the bookstore business in the beginning, was dwarfed by what he didn’t know about acting as his own construction contractor. When the 10,000-square-foot store opened in 1988, however, one of the lessons was clear: the entire second floor was given over to children’s books. 

Business was booming in the new store, but the Morrow’s soon confronted two new challenges. Number one was what Ed refers to as the “malling of America.” The second threat to Northshire Bookstore was, of course, Amazon. This is when Ed and Barbara realized what they had known all along:  only an independent bookstore can offer the sense of community that keeps people coming in the front door. Community had always been a driving force of Northshire, but the Morrows now knew it needed an even sharper focus

Soon the Morrows were going underground—to the basement of the former Coburn Inn, where they opened a 3,000-square-foot coffee shop called The Spiral Press.

In 2003 the Morrows received a petition from citizens from Saratoga Springs, a community 75 minutes away in New York state. The message: We like what Northshire Books has done in Vermont. We want you to come to  Saratoga Springs and do the same thing. Oh, and by the way, our market area is ten times larger than your current location. 

The Saratoga Springs store came at the right time. Ed and Barbara were thinking about retirement and making plans to turn Northshire over to Chris, their son. Opening a new store was the kind of challenge Chris lived for. He recalls it was one of the most memorable times in his career. 

“It was my baby,” he said. “I designed it. I hired the people.” 

The atmosphere is an important part of any good retail environment. The staff at the stores take care to add homey touches to the decor. The Manchester Center Store features a breathtaking wrought iron banister rail to the second floor, and a wood burning stove in the cookbook section (where else?). What appears to be a cluttered store in both locations is, in fact, a marvel of effective retailing. 

Both Northshire Bookstores have become community meeting places.  A half-dozen book-related clubs call the two stores home. Customers gather for cooking demonstrations, informational meetings about the environment, living in New England, and much more.  Almost always there is, of course, a book connection. There have been appearances by numerous authors, including John Irving, Steven King, John Grisham, David McCullough, Doris Kerns Goodwin, Rachel Maddow, Jeffery Toobin, and biggest event yet--Neil Gaiman.”

Both stores employ a full-time staffer whose sole responsibility is booking authors and speakers and coordinating events.  The secret to attracting authors, said Chris, lies in constant exchanges with publishers, publicists, and other members of the book industry. He adds it is a task that has been made more difficult by publishers cutting back on author tours. Nonetheless, Northshire has packed the house of both stores on many occasions. The events often require that the stores take reservations.

Between both stores, Northshire employs 50 people, with another 39 of what Chris refers to as full-time equivalent positions. Their best employees are avid readers, of course, which is reflected in the shelf talkers that adorn both stores. 

“Shelf talkers are one of the reasons people like independent bookstores,” said Chris. “They are consistently remarked on and appreciated by our customers.”

As businesspeople, the Morrow family, both Ed and Barbara as well as Chris, have also learned the value of non-book sales. In addition to books, both Northshire stores carry art supplies, board games, clothing, upscale candies, unique kitchen gifts and lots more. According to Chris, non-book sales account for anywhere between 25% and 35% of total sales.

Multiple streams of incomes at Northshire extend into other areas, most notably in self-publishing. Shires Press was started in 2008. The entity was actually an early beta-tester for the Expresso Machine, but now reproduction has gone to digital offset printing. Shires Press publishes local authors as well as public domain content. People like the diversity of offerings and it expands the stores offering to their customer base.

Ed Morrow cited the “malling of America” as one of the early molding forces of Northshire, but in the intervening years there has been a slow return to Main Street America. It is an energy that has served Northshire well. Both stores are in the heart of a bustling downtown area. The next time you’re in Manchester Center or across the state line in Saratoga Springs, check out the heart of downtown.  That’s where you’ll find Northshire Bookstore.

 

by Timothy Sunderland  (TopShelf Columnist)

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