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5.1.09

The Spirit of Independents

Martha’s Vineyard boasts a lot of committed people who own, work in, and patronize our bookstores. Neither last year’s Fourth of July fire nor the growth of big-box chain stores and online retailers is dampening that spirit.

On the morning of July Fourth, while the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore was being evacuated because of a fire, a customer stood resolutely in front of the checkout counter. The customer had been in the store the day before to buy a copy of David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and after reading the first hundred pages overnight, she had returned to get the book as a gift for a friend. Employees scrambled to get everyone safely out of the store, but this customer refused to leave, at least not without Sawtelle. Her defiance is notable. This kind of determination, matched by equally pertinacious booksellers, has helped independent bookstores survive during increasingly challenging times.

True, they don’t all make it. Nationwide in 2008, some beloved independent bookstores, such as Olsson’s in Washington, D.C., and Dutton’s Brentwood Books in Los Angeles, permanently shut their doors. On the Island, Sun Porch Books closed last spring after six years in business in Oak Bluffs. Perhaps surprisingly though, according to the American Booksellers Association, at least sixty-nine independent bookstores nationwide opened for business in 2008.

For a while things looked so gloomy for independent bookstores that even Hollywood took note. In the 1998 little-guy-versus-big-guy movie You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan plays the owner of a beloved children’s bookstore that is run out of business by mega-chain Fox Books. At first, Ryan’s character at least feigns optimism about her store’s prospects. “It has nothing to do with us. It’s big, overstocked, and full of ignorant sales people,” she says. “But they discount,” replies one of her employees. Alas, not all is a loss: Ryan’s character and the owner of the chain store, played by an adorable (as always) Tom Hanks, fall in love. The audience walks out of the theater with the sense that the big bookstore guy can’t be all bad if he’s being played by a lovable Tom Hanks.

It seems as if the large bookstore chains and online booksellers, who were once considered invasive predators by the indies, are now more like perennial pests. It’s true, the big guys have the impressive markdowns and marketing flair, but they don’t offer local flavor. In communities that value their own flavor, independent bookstores are surviving. And as we know, people don’t come to the Vineyard to feast on Big Macs.

They come here to stop in at Bunch of Grapes and pick up the latest staff selections. They come here to mingle and browse in Edgartown Books. People come to the Vineyard, because they know they might discover a small children’s bookstore tucked away on a side street with an owner who has a pitch-perfect sense of what kids like to read. Perhaps as a perk, they might find themselves browsing for books and sharing a little literary chitchat next to one of their favorite authors, be it Ward Just, Judy Blume, Tony Horwitz, Geraldine Brooks, Linda Fairstein, or one of the numerous other literary luminaries who frequent the Vineyard or call it home.

In the news

At 11:45 a.m., www.mvgazette.com posted a news flash: “A Fourth of July morning fire destroyed Café Moxie restaurant and severely damaged the Bunch of Grapes bookstore.” Five days later, The New York Times took note: “A beloved literary institution on Martha’s Vineyard, the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, suffered serious damage over the Fourth of July,” began their story. The store, along with its signed first-edition books by David McCullough and Bill and Hillary Clinton, didn’t actually go up in flames. It did sustain significant structural damage. Smoke and water destroyed the books, games, and other merchandise. No one was injured, and the persistent customer did buy Edgar Sawtelle for her friend, and agreed it didn’t need to be wrapped, given the circumstances.

At the time of the fire, the business was for sale. Then-owner Jon Nelson, who was relocating to Texas with his family, claimed he was determined to find a buyer who would maintain the spirit of the business. In an interview, conducted before the fire, he sounded emphatic, saying, “I will not transition it in any way that lessens its reputation or commitment to the community or our staff.”

Nevertheless, loyal customers and Vineyard authors worried that their beloved bookstore would change; worse yet, it could close.

After the fire, those anxieties heightened.

The dumpsters showed up. Stacks of soggy books were tossed in. A sign posted on the front door informed passersby the store was closed until further notice. News reports talked of insurance issues. Rumors and counter rumors invaded the summer’s cocktail parties. Jon owned the business, but his mother, Ann, owned the building, which meant prospective buyers would be involved in negotiations with two parties, one who was selling a book business with no books, the other who was offering a lease on a building that currently wasn’t habitable. There were other complications too. The owners of the adjacent building, where the fire started at Café Moxie, seemed to be moving slowly with their reconstruction, which directly affected the bookstore’s construction schedule. And there were the adjusters. Oy!

Things appeared to be idling to outsiders; unknown to many was that the insiders were quietly working on a deal. (More on that later.)

The fire, arguably the biggest news story of last summer, served as an unsolicited reminder of how a bookstore can change the character of a small town, or an entire island. While Bunch of Grapes remained closed for the summer, two other bookstores, Edgartown Books and Riley’s Reads in Vineyard Haven, continued to serve as worthy refuges for wayward book lovers.

Edgartown Books

In the pilot episode of the sitcom George and Leo, Leo (Judd Hirsch) walks into George’s (Bob Newhart) bookstore. The sitcom, which aired on CBS from 1997 to 1998, took place in an independent bookstore by the name of Bickerton and Ripley on Martha’s Vineyard.

“I’m looking for Ten Tips to Hot Lovemaking,” Leo says.

“We don’t get a lot of call for that. People up here are already pretty good in the sack,” replies George.

“But I’m looking for a very special gift. Can you recommend something else?” asks Leo.

“Well this picture book of Martha’s Vineyard is a very nice gift,” replies George.

The show took place on Martha’s Vineyard, but it was not shot here, aside from exteriors of the real B&R. You can see episodes on YouTube – which is where I watched this episode.

In 2002, David and Ann LeBreton bought the real Bickerton and Ripley and changed the store’s name to Edgartown Books. “Neither of us was a Bickerton or a Ripley,” explains David. A year later, they moved the store down the street into a two-story building, which, unlike their former location a block away, could be kept open year-round. The store is now divided into alcoves, with fiction and non-fiction, a children’s section – with a comfortable space for kids to sit and read – and an extremely comprehensive Island section, on the first floor. The second floor contains gardening, cooking, art books, travel, and young adult fiction. “We fit a lot into this space,” says store manager and buyer Susan Mercier.

The LeBretons, who live on the Vineyard part time, were already publishing insiders when they purchased the store. David founded Kirkus Reviews, which reviews books before publication. After selling that business, they learned over cocktails at a party that Bickerton and Ripley, which had been around for more than twenty years, was for sale. “My wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do it,’” recalls David.

The business, he says, is solid, but he admits to being bewildered as to why more people don’t seem to know about the store. Susan says after the fire at the Bunch of Grapes, she received a surprising number of calls from Island residents and visitors who were previously unaware they existed.

Edgartown Books extended more than their sympathies to the Bunch of Grapes after the fire. “We offered them our offices and our computers,” recalls Susan. “My heart just broke for them.”

While Edgartown Books already had a full roster of author events, it picked up many of the Bunch of Grapes off-site events last summer, which was a relief to many a nervous author (including the writer of this story). “If I learned one thing this past summer, it’s that this island clearly has a need for two bookstores,” says Susan.

This information won’t surprise anyone who knows the propensities of Vineyarders well, but after the fire, one of the most noticeable differences at Edgartown Books was the increase in the number of “green” books they sold. Perhaps less predictable was the bump in science fiction sales. “I learned so much from their customers that were coming in and asking me for very specific authors and books,” says Susan, adding, “I would love to pick the brain of whoever buys the science fiction for the Bunch of Grapes.”

“I see us as an island of readers,” says Susan. “I see us as an island of people that value the written word.” She also points out that the considerable number of high-caliber writers living here adds a lot to the Vineyard’s book businesses. Some, of course, are world renowned, like David McCullough; others, like Tom Dresser, have more of a local following. “In my opinion, they’re both great authors,” says Susan.

Riley’s Reads

Zoe Pechter apologizes. For the first time, her store isn’t brimming with the latest releases. It’s winter, the economy is on everyone’s mind, and Zoe, owner and co-founder of Riley’s Reads in Vineyard Haven, recently had knee surgery. “No one is shopping. It’s hard to stock a store that’s primarily seasonal,” she says.

Zoe opened Riley’s Reads (named after her cocker spaniel Riley) in 2003 with then-boyfriend Peter Economou. She bought him out four years later, after the couple split. “I had a great bookstore growing up. I wanted to share that experience,” says Zoe. Chatty and gregarious, she confesses that before she had her own store, she’d find herself in bookstores making unsolicited recommendations. “I have a love for books. I love kids, and I thought maybe there’s something there,” she says. “I thought maybe there’s a niche I can fill.”

Customers often ask her if she’s read all the thousands of titles in her store. She almost seems embarrassed when she admits that, in fact, she’s read many of them. She connects with children through literature. “I remember what the kids read. I’ll be at the beach and I’ll see someone – I won’t remember their name, but I can remember what they’re reading,” she says.

There have been struggles. The store flooded during their first winter in business. Her just-off-Main-Street location is less than ideal: The store is almost hidden, tucked away on the road traveled most frequently by drivers looking for a parking spot at Stop and Shop. Riley’s Reads almost literally resides in the shadow of the Bunch of Grapes, even when it’s closed. The relationship between the two competitive businesses has at times been strained, but Zoe is optimistic that things will be better when it reopens.

After the fire, she says, people were noticeably upset. Many of her customers asked her to expand into the adult market. She refused. “I did not want to step on their toes. I think Edgartown Books is a fine bookstore and I sent people there.”

Her 650-square-foot store is made up of three small rooms. The front room, with two entrances, has the newest releases in picture books and children’s novels on display as well as non-literary items, like stickers and dolls. The middle room is devoted primarily to picture books, activity books, and related items. The shelves in the back room are filled with novels for young readers. For the comfort of her clientele, brightly colored beanbag chairs are strewn around each room. Like most booksellers, Zoe relies on sales of non-literary items to make ends meet. “The other stuff offers you the ability to pay the rent in Vineyard Haven and stay open year-round,” she says. “I find things that aren’t junky. I try to find things that are special.”

Zoe truly enjoys talking about children’s books. She chats with customers, offers suggestions, and enthusiastically plucks out titles from the stacks of books. “I like the hands-on experience. I want to walk people back to their books,” she says. She’s even formed a reading group with a group of Tisbury School students who frequent the store. Now fifth graders, they’ve read everything from Little Women to The White Giraffe. “They have an affection for my store and I feel pretty privileged that they do.”

Bunch of Grapes Bookstore

Bunch of Grapes first opened its doors in the mid-1960s. A decade later, store founders Stephanie and David Hugo sold the one-story bookshop on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, to Ann and Jon Nelson Sr. Jon ran the store during the day. Ann, the supervisor of the intensive care unit at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, would return home from work, make dinner, and bring it down to the shop. Jon ate while Ann watched the store. Ann did the bookkeeping from the beginning.

The Nelsons expanded the business by adding a second story to the building in 1979. The second floor was a self-supporting, independent structure built on steel beams, and reinforced by hurricane sway bars and steel girders. The addition, designed and built by engineer Donald DeSorcy, who ran Vineyard-based DeSorcy Contracting for nearly half a century, was notable because Donald insisted on including fire blocking along the wall that the store shared with the building next door. The fire blocking works to reduce the oxygen supply, should a fire break out. (This design likely saved the building from a much worse fate on July 4, 2008. Now, Leo DeSorcy, Donald’s son, is overseeing the reconstruction.)

Ann took over the store in the mid-eighties after her marriage ended. During her tenure helming the Bunch of Grapes, she made her mark on the national and Island literary scenes. The bookstore became a place where notable authors, like William Styron, Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin, Patricia Neal, John Hersey, and Art Buchwald launched their latest books. In 2003, Publishers Weekly named Ann bookseller of the year. An astute business woman, who loves to read and exudes enthusiasm, she explains, “I had a passion to provide literature for the community.”

Ann sold the business to her son three years ago, so she could have time to travel and pursue, with her typical fervor, other interests. Faced with the economics of the business – the incredibly high cost of shipping books, insurance, taxes, and a perilously slow winter season – Jon echoed many a bookseller’s lament. It’s extremely difficult to make ends meet. When he and his wife decided to move to Texas, he knew for the business to survive, he’d have to sell.

Before the fire, he’d had discussions with several prospective buyers. One of them was Dawn Braasch.

Dawn, formerly the bookstore’s events coordinator, is relatively new to the Island. An avid reader, she says her friends expect to find her holed up with a book if they unexpectedly stop by. She also has an eclectic résumé, which includes running an extremely successful trucking company she co-founded and working as a teacher.

She confesses that while she talked about purchasing the business before the fire, her interest truly peaked later. “After the fire, nothing was left except good will and the name. The store’s future was far less certain. I couldn’t imagine not having the bookstore in town,” Dawn says and smiles, blue eyes twinkling, as she makes her next statement. “It was purely selfish really.”

In October, Dawn bought the business. A month later, she opened a small starter store in a temporary location on Church Street near Beadniks. In rebuilding the business, Dawn enlisted the wise counsel of long-time Bunch of Grapes employees Karen Harris, Katherine Fergason, Gardner Baldwin, and Dailis Merrill, as well as Ann Nelson. “I love talking literature and ledgers with her,” says Ann, who along with Jon and Dawn, emphasize the vast contributions of the bibliophilic staff and of book buyer Dailis Merrill’s unmatched and uncanny literary knowledge and instincts about what people want to read.

Late this spring, if all goes according to plan, Bunch of Grapes will reopen in its former location. Along with the new owner will come some changes, both to the store and to the business’s revamped website (www.bunchofgrapes.com).

The struggles of operating an independent bookstore will continue, no doubt. Holly Nadler, who owned Sun Porch Books before it closed last year, says she sold the name of her business and the sign to a woman, whom she declined to name, and hopes someday it will return to Oak Bluffs. Certainly the events of last summer prove that it will take more than an Independence Day fire to destroy the spirit of the people who own, work in, and patronize the Vineyard’s independent bookstores.

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