I was sitting in the Chelsea Royal Diner just outside of Brattleboro, Vermont when my conversation with the waitress took a turn toward what I was doing in the area, and we began down a path I have grown all too familiar with. Over the course of the last year of road trips and visiting bookshops, my conversations with people who learn about this endeavor of mine have naturally and consistently led to two questions: What’s the best local bookshop, and what makes a bookshop truly great?
The first question is harder to answer because it depends on so many personal, subjective, and external factors. Location, preference for new or used books, subject and genre tastes, a strict adherence to affordability or a willingness to pay for the right book at the right time, and so on. The second question, however, is much easier for me to answer, because the best bookshops all seem to have all or most of the same traits. And I found all these traits on my adventure to Brattleboro, but not necessarily where I expected to find them.
Coming from the Albany, New York area, I passed through Benningnton (my old stomping grounds) and wound my way through the Green Mountains to Wilmington, Vermont, a quaint and bustling little town that serves as the gateway to an extensive and popular skiing region. The town has craft stores, galleries, cafes, motels, and of course two bookshops (of which I only hit one this time). The main shop in town is Bartleby’s Books, and they surprisingly embodied many of the traits I often tell people a bookshop must exhibit to make it to my “Greatest Hits” list.
Bartleby’s Books is the town’s purveyor of new books, and covers all the necessary bases you’d want in a shop. When you walk in the door you run smack into various displays of the newest titles, gift books, and islands of notable selections. A third of the downstairs is dedicated to children’s books, and quite a lot of them, everything from picture books to chapter books and YA titles, a very strong assortment, likely due to the number of vacationing kiddos they need to appease! Throughout the rest of the downstairs I found fiction and nonfiction, mystery, poetry, history, and a modest amount of discount titles, many of which were uncorrected proofs of novels from the late 1980s, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
They have a bright and cozy upstairs, with alcoves and aisles dedicated to all sorts of nonfiction—cooking and food, gardening and crafts, design and architecture, and another discount book section packed with titles from all over the shop, fiction, nonfiction, kids, you name it. All in all, Bartleby’s is a fun shop for a great little crossroads town.
But Wilmington is only the halfway point in my journey. I kept moving and snaked through more mountains and lakes, finally descending again into Brattleboro, which has a lively and diverse downtown. Every time I pass through the place is full of people walking around, shopping and eating, and it’s just a great place to visit on a beautiful afternoon. The first bookshop on my list, however, had a “closing soon” sign outside, so considering it wasn’t long for this world, I didn’t review it. I still stopped in though to take advantage of any closing deals. Unfortunately, I saw why they were closing. It was primarily a shop of well-read mass market paperbacks, each thickly creased and dog-eared. If old editions of sci-fi, crime, mystery, and thrillers are your thing, this was your paradise, but alas you’ll now have to revert back to scouring garage sales because this spot is gone.
But have no fear, intrepid bookshop hunters, for Brattleboro has so much more to offer. Just up the block through some parking areas I found the back door to Everyone’s Books, a lively shop filled with books, gifts, clothing, stickers, signs, and more from floor to ceiling, and they have that energetic, socially-aware vibe that can really make a bookshop feel more like the headquarters of a movement. That’s what you get in Everyone’s Books. Their motto is “For Social Justice and the Earth,” after all.
Beyond the tables and displays of progressive titles they have your usual array of fiction, biography, history, children’s, music, theater, poli-sci, and so on. They had some discount tables and some section of books that supported certain causes (with a percentage of the sales going to this or that) so it was great seeing a bookshop take such an active stance in local and world issues.
Out the front entrance and across the street was Brattleboro Books, with its dark-wood exterior, a lamppost, and antique-looking signage, it stands out as a throwback. Right when you step inside you’ll hit the discount shelves, towering stacks, and twisting aisles. There are books that have a little more mileage than usual, but for the most part the books were very solid, and ranged from newer releases to older editions of classics, some throwback hardcovers from across the 20th century, and dated tomes I’d never heard of.
There were areas for the classics, general lit/fiction, poetry and plays, and a big children’s/YA section. In the rear there were mass markets, crime, mystery, presidential, history, gardening, Vermont/regional, and sci-fi books. There was also a side cove for religion, philosophy, zen, travel, filmmaking, drawing, art, etc. There were a bunch of signs from old bookshops throughout too, which was really cool. It’s the kind of shop perfect for looking for those novels you’ve been meaning to buy but don’t want to pay full price for elsewhere.
Around the corner on Main Street is the aptly named Mystery on Main Street, a smaller shop dedicated to mysteries, crime, noir, and more in that vein. Just to the right inside the door is a shelf entirely of new titles and recent bestsellers. To the left and along many of the rows in the back are the real meat and potatoes of the shop, with plenty of the most notable names in the mystery business. There’s also a table with sale titles near the register, and there was a small-ish true crime section too. Near the black and white parquet floor (a nice touch for that throwback feel) there were some couches and chairs for relaxing or for signings. It was a nice space, and while it was quiet when I walked in, the shop filled up quickly as the afternoon wore on. If mysteries, crime, hardboiled, femme fatale, classic Hollywood, cozies, or procedurals are your thing, this shop is for you.
I left the shop and wandered the downtown section for a while longer. I was aware there were other bookshops nearby, particularly in Keane, New Hampshire, just across the border but I was pretty wiped out after all that browsing, so I climbed the hill back to my car and headed west again. And yes, I stopped at that rather literal “greasy spoon” diner I bookmarked for my early dinner before tackling the mountain roads again. While the dinner wasn’t the ideal throwback meal I imagined, the conversation there and my ruminating about the day helped me formulate my five major traits a great bookshop needs to exhibit.
The first, and it will always be the first, is discounts. Does the shop offer books at discounted prices? And not just the rubbish books, but quality offerings, bigger names, unique titles. It’s nicer if it’s more than just a single cart or shelf, but even just a small section is sometimes enough to make a visit worth it. Getting two or three books for the price of one is such an amazing feeling, and every shop should consider highlighting their discounts to draw readers deep into their store.
The next trait I look for is a solid mix of new and used books. This dovetails with discounts, because those used books should be marked down, and having them either mixed in or in their own section is nice to see. If all you have are new books and no discounts, then what’s stopping people from bypassing you and going to Barnes & Noble? Offer a mix of new and used, or new and discounted, and then you have an adventure on your hands. The best shops offer at least a little of this, and it’s duly noted every time.
Another trait is having a present staff. Sounds simple, but getting that right amount of presence and preoccupation is a nifty trick to pull off. I’ve visit shops with no staff and highly passive-aggressive signage reading, “You’re on camera and we’re watching you!” and I’ve been to shops with no staff who left notes welcoming me, offering candy, and informing me they’ll be back in just a jiff. The latter shows presence without even being there! I can appreciate that. Some shops have staff who quietly sit alone behind a desk. Fair enough. No harm. Others have staff happily greeting you as you walk in, or are milling around shelving books and fielding questions, striking up conversations where they can without causing too much of a bother. Again, the presence is noticeable and makes a difference. Lastly, I also visited shops where staff followed me and repeatedly asked me why I was taking notes and eyed me all throughout, even after I made it clear I aimed to promote their shop, making me feel very unwelcome. So presence is nice, but it can be overplayed. Get that right balance and you have a winner.
Being active in the community and online is also a really powerful trait that many shops overlook. Hosting events, contests, and readings, highlighting local author shelves, and having an active Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook account all make a shop that much more likable and interactive. You want to feel like the bookshop is that friend who wants to actually hang out with you instead of that friend you hear from twice a year.
Finally, a great bookshop has an angle. Something that sets it apart from all the other local shops. Maybe you have a wine bar in the back. Maybe you also sell art supplies. Maybe your shop has a lot of Beat poet quotes and photos posted all over. Maybe you focus on mystery and crime novels. Maybe your shop looks like something from a Harry Potter-themed village with twisting aisles and tall stacks. Maybe you just have funky lights and handmade shelves. Or maybe you’re politically and socially aware and offer a lot of progressive and indie titles readers might not find elsewhere. There’s no harm in being a run-of-the-mill, steady and dependable shop, but if you give your shop a twist, an angle, a reason to remember it, people will flock back. I assure you.
I certainly will return, just as soon as my stomach settles from that greasy blue plate special and the twisting mountain roads of Vermont. But all kidding aside, my journey to Brattleboro through Wilmington was a lot of fun, and while no one shop hit all the traits I noted above, if they combine all their powers, this day trip is absolutely elevated from a solid visit to an incredible day of bookshop hunting. Head out there if you can, but maybe grab a sandwich downtown if you feel a bit peckish.
James Duncan is a poet, writer, and the editor of Hobo Camp Review. He also review independent bookshops as The Bookshop Hunter. His books include We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine (Unknown Press), Dead City Jazz (Epic Rites Press), Berlin (Maverick Duck Press), and What Lies In Wait (Hobo Camp Press), among other collections of poetry and fiction. Novels and new columns are coming soon!