I have always been a lover of the written word and the places that dispense them. As a child I would travel across the West Midlands in England with my father, to our favorite used bookstore. It was run by two ageing gentlemen in their old country house. We would park by the churchyard across the street, and run across the unmarked lane to a world of wonder. From the moment you stepped foot in the house you were surrounded by books. You walked a hallway filled with books, branching off with rooms full of books. Eventually you would arrive at the backdoor, go down the stone steps and into a broad courtyard encircled by interconnected outbuildings. What once held chickens and pigs now held bookshelves and room after room, floor after floor, of old books, new books, all the books you could imagine. I am not beyond taking a road trip just for a bookstore, and now I am all grown up, I get to do that with my kids as my dad once did with me.
So I found myself on a rainy November day driving the four and a half hours from my home in Maine, to Manchester, Vermont and the Northshire Bookstore. Traveling with my daughter, her best friend, and said best friend’s mother, we arrived on Friday evening and while the girls swam, we read the books we had brought along with us, dreaming of the books we would buy in the morning.
Shortly after the store opened on Saturday morning, we arrived.
I have been in hundreds of bookstores in dozens of states, in many countries, and yet I think I have found my favorite one in an unassuming Vermont town. Nestled between ski resorts and high end outlet stores, lies the Northshire Bookstore. Beginning in a classic old New England structure, and sitting on the corner of a block, the nooks and crannies within could delight for days on end. While there is now a second location in nearby New York State, the original store was founded in 1976 right in the center of town by Ed & Barbara Morrow. In 1985, the bookstore moved across the street to the Colburn House, formerly a stage coach inn and restaurant. At 10,000 square feet it’s size is almost like being inside the Tardis. It is comprised of so many rooms, so many twists and turns, that it feels small but never ending. It reminds me of one of my favorite fictitious bookstores: Pages and Co in the novels of the same name by Anna James.
We have tried to create a store that fosters browsing and discovery. We can, of course, get any book in print, but we believe in the joy of serendipity and have laid out the store to enhance this experience.
We entered the store from the spacious parking lot and were instantly greeted by an archway of books. The perfect picture spot for the bookish tourist. As you make your way around the store, each room contains somewhere cozy to sit, displays of recommended titles, local treats, and of course floor to ceiling shelves lined with books. Right now there is a room with Christmas goodies, that I imagine transforms itself with each season.
Making your way to the center of the store you will come across a blackened iron staircase that leads to one of the largest and best displayed selection of children’s books I have encountered. The massive floor space is a child’s delight, 90% books 10% toys and frippery, just the right balance. There are new books and reduced price books, a vibrant non-fiction section. There is an amazing early readers section, created with the crawling browser and their parents in mind. A parents dream, the only way out of the children’s section is back down the stairs, so we could instruct our two curious seven year olds to explore however they wanted as long as they didn’t go down the stairs. Knowing that we would see if they tried a vanishing act. I am a huge fan of the children’s section with only one access point, it makes the simultaneous act of parenting and browsing so much easier. At one end of the enormous attic room there is a used book section, at the other end a giant selection of picture books, with space to roll around and read in front of a picturesque window looking out onto Main Street.
My daughter was very satisfied to find the new book from Jory John and Pete Oswald; The Sour Grape.And even more delighted to find stuffed animals to accompany her favorite series. As long time collectors of childrens Thanksgiving books, I was excited to find the most extensive selection I have ever seen, and managed to restrict myself to the purchase of A Turkey for Thanksgiving by Eve Bunting and Diane DeGroat. I was able to find two more books in the Galactic Hot Dogs series on sale, which I have been hoping to come across since last December when the first book was a huge hit at Christmas. The Non-Fiction section had a wonderful array of our favored National Geographic books, but also a whole host of beautifully illustrated selections from independent publishers. So many children’s books concerning Mushrooms, it just made me so happy.
Once our daughters had availed themselves long enough of the delights of this wonderland, we adults were allowed time to peruse the many, many rooms below. Taking it in turns to stretch our legs and get lost amid the stacks, we settled the girls on a comfy couch in the dystopian fiction section, from which we could orient ourselves through our own wonderland.
I cannot emphasize the nooks and crannies enough. If you walked the edges of each bookshelf it felt as if you could walk for miles. You could see from room to room to room in some places, and in others you felt secluded in a tiny cottage. Labyrinthine and yet so much space to stretch in body and imagination. I feel myself lacking in words magical enough to describe the place.
While my friend explored I snuggled up on a couch to read to the girls from the books they had selected. When done reading they played together while I grabbed whatever was nearest, adding to my own stack of purchases from the comfort of the couch. I watched other children and adults wander and wonder around the store, each with the same look in their eye, everyone happy to be there.
No staff bothered us to provide unasked for aid, which my introverted self is exceptionally grateful for, but every staff member we interacted with seemed overjoyed to be there, and brimming over with book magic. The young girl who would eventually check me out was delighted with each book she scanned in, as if she were making the purchases herself.
I found a book I was worried I might not find, as I was looking for a particular version and it has recently been re-released; Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante. From my place on the couch I found a book I did not know existed but have since plowed through and find myself needing to order the second of; For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten. I found several Christmas themed books that I will relish on the upcoming cold December evenings.
I also found much in the non-book offerings that I wanted to bring home with me, but I contained my love of things to a box of Christmas Crackers, and a few Christmas presents to put away for the children. The Christmas Crackers were a delight. Every year I find boxes here and there, as this English tradition of my childhood makes it’s way into American stores. But I have very particular needs and so was overjoyed by what I found in Vermont.
Eventually we made our purchases and made our way to the cafe. You do not have to leave for lunch, pastries, or coffee. A small nook on the far side of the building houses a small cafe with wonderful offerings. But then a quick hop up a small staircase and it opens up into a wide seating area, complete with board game library. While we drank tea and read our new books, the girls played board games and made friends with the other children who came in. The inner walls were lined with tables for two where I could easily imagine myself spending a day writing feverishly while drinking too much good coffee. There were couches along the outer walls, tall stools for perching, and tables large enough for groups of 12 to sit together. It was wonderful watching a group of twenty somethings talking over books and laptops, all happy to be there, all engaged in this wonderful atmosphere. We had the Mac and Cheese, which was delicious, the tea, which was warming, and the girls had fruit cups, which were fresh and refreshing.
With the few hours we were there, we only began to scratch the surface of this bookstore and it’s place in the community. They have a Vinyl collector’s club, offer extensive in house events, and have a YouTube channel where you can find most of these events recorded. There is a book of the month subscription service put together by in house booksellers. There is a carefully curated, and extensive, selection of rare and hand-signed books.
Be still my beating heart, there is a Book Angel Program. A 26 year old tradition of ensuring children in the community receive the gift of a new book during the holidays—children who might not otherwise own a book or have books available to them. You can choose a book to donate, or donate money. The store has partnered with local schools to identify children in need, and during the holiday season you can select from the Book Angel Tree to make your donation. Through the same school partnership and donation model, they also work through Event Angels to bring author visits to local schools
Reluctant to leave, we briefly perused the extensive used book section on our way through, took a few pictures with the artwork and sculpture outside, and headed away from Main Street. After a few more stops in the area, we sat by the pool in the late afternoon, reading while the girls splashed around with new friends.
I have to mull this over for a spell, as I have so many that I love, but I believe I may have found my favorite bookstore, I have certainly found a family of booklovers as lovely and book-y as I want to be if I grow up. The line from Rebecca has been ever in my mind since we left Vermont, except that last night I went to the Northshire Bookstore. You should probably go too.