The Case for Local Bookstores
It's time you paid your neighborhood bookseller a visit
White Birch Books is a charming local shop in North Conway.
Photo by Joe Klementovich
Books matter. More specifically, real books matter. Paper, glue and ink — holding the physical product of someone’s imagination in your hands beats a screen any day. Technology that expands access to reading and knowledge is a wonderful thing, but in our zeal for the next new, shiny thing, we shouldn’t forget the power of the actually written word.
If you can be convinced to put the Kindle down for a moment, then here’s what you should do next — resist the lure of Amazon’s “Buy now with one click!” button and go to an independent bookstore.
Blockbuster blinked out of existence with the digitization of movies, yet bookstores remain. New Hampshire is no exception — in fact, we have a rich history of bookselling here in the Granite State.
Gibson’s Bookstore was founded in 1898 and just so happens to be the oldest continuously operating retailer in the Concord area. It has, of course, changed over time, and for the better. For one thing, it offers far more books now than when Walter Gibson opened the doors in 1898. At that time, says current owner Michael Herrmann, it was “mostly stationery with some books.” In 2013, Gibson’s moved to its current location on South Main Street, partnered with True Brew Barista to open an in-store café, and purchased local toy store Imagination Village to incorporate educational toys and games. Today, it’s the largest independent bookstore in northern New England.
Though a store’s first order of business is, of course, staying in business, bookstores are also about bringing people together. With the café, kids’ area and a series of excellent events and readings, Gibson’s certainly does its part to foster a sense of connection and community.
“Bookstores are a natural gathering place and a natural arena in which to express community values,” says Herrmann, who is just the fifth owner of the store — once someone takes over, this shop seems to hold on tight.
“[A bookstore] is a place for conversation,” he adds. “It’s literally the place that holds the things that contain ideas.”
“When we share stories about books we love, there are these great conversations that can happen,” says Laura Cummings, owner of the charming White Birch Books in North Conway.
White Birch is what would happen if your somewhat eccentric neighbor opened up a bookstore in her home. As you step up onto the inviting porch of this house-turned-shop, you almost expect to see a living room through the purple door instead of a shop. But this business is just as welcoming as a sitting room.
It’s the kind of cozy place where you can imagine neighbors coming together to chat about what they’re reading, so it’s no surprise that the store is home to two popular book groups. “People new to town join to meet people. Friendships form. They don’t even have to like the same books; they just have to enjoy reading,” says Cummings.
She also works hard to make connections with the community by working with schools, becoming a regular on the radio and by taking the “show on the road,” otherwise known as “when I put books in my car and drive them somewhere,” says Cummings.
Community and meeting new people are all well and good, but don’t forget that bookstores are, at heart, about sharing the joy of reading.
If there’s one thing book enthusiasts and bookstore owners/employees love more than books (well, maybe equally), it’s talking about books. Walk into any bookstore, ask for advice on what to read next, and you’re guaranteed to find something new and unexpected. Go ahead and try telling Amazon that you loathed “Girl on a Train” but want to give mysteries with unreliable narrators another shot. A bookstore staffer would be all over that.
“The big truth is that real people are better than an algorithm and they’re always going to be,” says Cummings.
“Some people just want the next ‘it’ thing,” she adds, and that’s fine. But if you want to get off the bestseller list, head into the store. “Here, you’re going to get the quirky; you’re going to get the different,” she says. Sharing your likes and dislikes with people who love books is truly the best way to make new discoveries. No generated “recommended for you” list can match that.
Herrmann agrees: “What we do, you can’t find online.” Shopping online works if you know exactly what you want, “but if you’re not quite sure or if you’re open to serendipity, you can’t replicate that online. There’s nothing like browsing through a bookstore.”
There’s also no better place to find local authors — both their books and in person. White Birch, Gibson’s, Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, The Toadstool Bookshops in Milford, Keene and Peterborough, and RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth all have excellent authors series, which often feature local writers. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a local bookstore that doesn’t host events, from open-mic poetry readings to book signings and author talks. You can get up close to some of your literary idols at the ongoing “Writers on a New England Stage” series, which takes place at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, often in partnership with RiverRun. This past fall, Gibson’s did something similar with its wildly popular Bernie Sanders event that packed the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord.
photo by joe klementovich
White Birch Books, like many bookstores, is welcoming to kids too.
But if it’s local talent you’re looking for, then definitely check out any one of Toadstool’s three locations.
Willard Williams was only 19 when he opened the first Toadstool Bookshop in 1972 in his hometown of Peterborough. About a decade later, the second store opened in Keene, followed by the Milford location in 1989. In the ’90s, the original Peterborough store moved to its current home, a 7,500-square-foot former A&P supermarket.
Though Toadstool offers a giant range of books from popular bestsellers to biographies, special care is taken to highlight New Hampshire’s writers.
Buying a locally written book from a local bookstore is the retail version of the farm-to-table restaurant. But even if you’re after the latest Nicholas Sparks, consider one of our many bookstores, each with its own personality, before you click the checkout button.
If supporting your local businesses isn’t reason enough to get you through the door, then just listen to Cummings: “If you walk into a bookstore, and this isn’t scientific, but you are 99 percent cooler than someone who doesn’t.”
A few of our favorite upcoming events at local bookstores. We'll update this with more information as it becomes available, so check back!
“Moments of Seeing: Reflections from an Ordinary Life,” with Katrina Kenison
January 7, 4 p.m.Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord
From the author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” and “Magical Journey,” a new “Moments of Seeing: Reflections from an Ordinary Life”
In this long-awaited collection of essays from her popular blog, Katrina Kenison gives voice to the simple joys and private longings of women everywhere. Here are the deeply felt and beautifully articulated moments of life as it is really lived. Visit Gibson's website for more details or to purchase the books.
“This Much I Know is True,” with Rev Mary Francis Drake
January 21, 2 p.m.
Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord
Join Gibson's as Rev Mary Francis Drake, MA, MSW, presents an afternoon of poetry and faith as she shares “This Much I Know is True: Gleanings from the Path of Love,” accompanied by her sister, singer/songwriter, Audrey Drake. Visit Gibson's website for more details or to purchase the book.
Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire Winter Conference
January 28, Concord
Main Street BookEnds is the bookseller for this annual conference. Farmer and nationally renowned author Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms is this year's keynote speaker. Salatin is a full-time farmer in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His speaking and writing reflect dirt-under-the-fingernails experience punctuated with mischievous humor. Featured in the movie "Fresh," he passionately defends small farms, local food systems, and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm. Four generations of his family currently live and work on the farm. Visit Main Street BookEnds for more information or to purchase Salatin's books.
Lisa Gardner’s International Book Release Party
January 30, 7 p.m.
Horsefeathers Restaurant, North Conway
New Hampshire’s own Lisa Gardner is celebrating the release of her latest thriller, “Right Behind You.” The new novel comes out January 31, and the first place to see Gardner and to get your very own signed copy is the night before at the White Birch Books International Book Launch Party, hosted by Horsefeathers Restaurant, right in the center of North Conway Village. See more details and pre-order your copy at White Birch Books.
“F*CK LOVE: One Shrink's Sensible Advice for Finding a Lasting Relationship”
February 4, 4 p.m.
Gibson’s Bookstore, Concord
Michael Bennett, MD, Board-certified psychiatrist and author of the New York Times best-selling “F*ck Feelings,” and Sarah Bennett, recommend ditching the idea of blazing love and thinking about what makes for enduring relationships, such as shared interests and goals, as they present “F*ck Love: One Shrink's Sensible Advice for Finding a Lasting Relationship.”
From the brilliant New York Times bestselling authors of the refreshingly blunt "F*ck Feelings", this seriously irreverent roadmap reveals the essentials to look for when you're done being suckered by the promise of true love and want help seeking a real, lasting relationship.
Prose, Poetry & All Things Made of Words
Held the first Tuesday of every month from 6:30-8 p.m. at Crackskulls in Newmarket.