Norwich Bookstore's Roots Go Deep

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Penny McConnel and Liza Bernard founded The Norwich Bookstore almost 13 years ago, before a building even existed to house it. What is now a 2,000-square-foot general bookstore occupying two stories in Vermont's Norwich Square downtown shopping area was then merely a big hole in the ground. A local builder was razing buildings to create new retail spaces that resemble private homes.

"We decided, based on that hole in the ground, to just go with it," McConnel told BTW. Since then the store has become a town institution, offering the latest titles, monthly author events, and customized help for book clubs through new "book-talk" meetings with staff members. The store's tag line, "Thoughtfully chosen books for everyone in the family," makes its mission clear.

Among the Norwich Bookstore's most popular sections are children's books and fiction. Bestselling fiction writers Jody Picoult and Chris Bohjalian, both Vermont residents, are frequent guests.

McConnel began her bookselling career about 25 years ago as an employee of Dartmouth Bookstore, then an independent business and the only bookstore within a 70-mile radius. Times have changed, however, and now Dartmouth Bookstore is run by a national chain, and other chain bookstores are located within about seven miles [of Norwich]. Places in New Hampshire, just across the Connecticut River from Norwich, are considered local, explained McConnel.

"We feel a little pushed in," she said. "But we're holding our own. We have a nice community of readers here, and we're participating in the Local First Vermont campaign. Liza [Bernard] is on [the group's] steering committee."

Noting that every customer interaction is an opportunity to spread the word about buying local, McConnel added, "Naming our group of stores here Norwich Square is part of a move to create a cohesive group of local independent stores. We've had several events together. We constantly encourage people to keep their money local, supporting and celebrating their community."

On the store's newly launched website, the owners acknowledge that many books, including the final Harry Potter saga, can be purchased elsewhere at deep discounts, but price is not the only consideration. "Thinking globally and acting locally is not just a slogan," reads a letter on the site from the owners. "It is an important factor in the health of our community."

Also featured on the store's website are capsule reviews by store staff of favorite reads, event listings, and even an understandable explanation of ISBN-13.

McConnel told BTW that she appreciates past improvements to the Book Sense Picks lists that have made them "more straightforward and easier to use." Because Norwich's storefront resembles a home, it lacks some conventional retail amenities, such a large display windows, but displays are mounted on glass shelves in the store windows, and always include one devoted to Book Sense Picks.

Both McConnel and Bernard attended the recent ABA Winter Institute and returned with rave reviews. "It was fabulous. We learned so much," McConnel effused. "We heard presentations by publisher reps and then met a lot of the authors at the reception. It forged a personal connection and got me interested in books I never would have known about." Based on their enthusiasm for the Winter Institute, the two changed their plans, and immediately registered for BookExpo America, she added. --Nomi Schwartz