Bookstore Leads Way to Downtown Revitalization

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Ann Burlingham is a small-town bookseller with big ideas. Her eponymous Burlingham Books opened on January 31 in Perry, New York, and celebrated its grand opening on June 17. Open seven days a week, and until 11:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, the store features live music and the only public changing table in town. And Burlingham has many more ideas about how to make the store a destination.

The exterior of Burlingham Books in Perry, New York.

A sixth-generation resident of Perry, a farming community 45 miles south of Rochester and 50 miles east of Buffalo, New York, Burlingham grew up on a local dairy farm. She left Perry behind to travel the world, ranging from Ohio to Australia, and during that time worked in several bookstores and even managed one. Now she considers herself in the enviable position of owning a bookstore that is loaded with potential.

"My mother claims that I've been talking about opening a bookstore for 20 years," Burlingham told BTW. "I don't remember that, but downtown Perry is a great spot for a bookstore, one that is also a community center. Since our downtown district is targeted for revitalization, I was able to get assistance and technical help through the Alliance for Business Growth.

Owner Ann Burlingham.

"I participated in the Microenterprise Assistance Program (MAP) -- it was an intensive course at Alfred State [College] for small business owners -- and I also received a grant for a year's rent subsidy and a $5,000 loan for capitalization. If I stay in business for two years, I don't have to repay the loan. The whole program is state funded and administered through the county."

Burlingham attended the Booksellers School at BookExpo America 2005 in New York City. "Because I had worked in bookstores for many years, I went partly to reassure myself that I had covered all the bases," she explained. "I was surprised at how many participants had never worked in a bookstore. I was really impressed with the materials I got through the program....

"I also get a lot out of the BookWeb's Bookseller Forums. There is so much to learn from all these other booksellers -- so many different strategies. I read in BTW about a store in Salt Lake City having a Spanish language section -- we have migrant workers here -- I'd like to do that. I'd like everyone in my county to have a book, even if I have to give away books."

By Burlingham's own calculations, she has the largest bookstore in three counties. The total square footage is 2,460, with about 1,900 square feet in selling space and a cafe.

A customer peruses the store's Book Sense display.

"I have the only espresso machine in town," she told BTW. "I want the store to be a gathering place. We offer groups who meet here free coffee. There is an active local arts council down the street, and people will come out to hear interesting writers. We've already had some authors and are hoping to get more. A local coffeehouse was featuring live music on Saturday nights. Since they've closed, we're carrying on the tradition. With the new Saturday morning farmer's market, we have several hundred people now walking through the downtown. I'm hoping to start a Saturday afternoon program for kids featuring explosive, messy science experiments that your mom won't let you do at home."

Perry has one of the few remaining drive-in theaters with first-run movies. The owners have tried to make it into a daylong entertainment experience, Burlingham said. "There's miniature golf, a stage, restaurants. If you do things right here, people will come. A bowling alley opened downtown. People have to change their perceptions about the downtown -- there really are things happening. We're open from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day, with later hours on the weekends. We want to establish ourselves as a place to go.

"People can drive to the mall in Rochester in an hour. If your store is closed at 6:00 p.m., they can drive there and spend two hours and a lot of their money at the mall and not at your store."

Burlingham Books offers mostly new books and some used, shelved together. There are "bottom shelf specials" for $3 and under for those willing to bend down. Burlingham said that patrons sometimes give back books they purchased at the store, or donate their used books. She has been buying her stock "as widely as possible." The recent NAIBA trunk show offered her many buying ideas, as do the Book Sense Picks, Publishers Weekly, and NPR. She also keeps a list on the counter for customers to fill in any requests.

"It's important to have the latest books," she told BTW, "even if hardcover books seem pricey for this community. People want the choice."

Burlingham delegates some of the bookstore work to several staffers. "I have a two-and-a-half-year-old, and I need to have a life," she said. "People will burnout if they keep working these long hours. I need staff and my rent subsidy was based on job creation -- so I created about five or six part-time jobs."

In the near future, Burlingham will begin using Book Sense gift cards; the first batch has just arrived. She also hopes to develop a website at some point. "I'd love to have a bigger kids' area, meeting rooms, a community room," she added. "At the downtown revitalization group, we've discussed the need for a community information center -- why not in the bookstore? We need a place to post community events, too. Perry doesn't have a Greyhound Bus stop -- why not have the bus stop here? We could sell the tickets. Anything that gets more people in here helps us and helps the community." --Nomi Schwartz