Morrow Family and Manchester’s Northshire Bookstore, The
You could spend a day inside the Northshire Bookstore without noticing the passage of time.
Even before you enter this jewel of a bookstore, located in the heart of downtown Manchester, you know you are in for an intellectual adventure: on the pathway from the parking lot to the front door, carved into a stone tablet, are the words, “Nothing is written in stone.” Just inside the door, 16 lockers stand ready to help customers burdened by outlet center shopping purchases or backpacks. A series of softly carpeted, wood-paneled rooms display an astonishingly wide range of books – about 40,000 at any one time. Soft music plays in the background maybe Linda Ronstadt, or Gordon Lightfoot or Bob Dylan.
Pass by the stand holding up the heavy new “Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker,” turn the pages and browse for laughs. Run your hand wistfully over Gourmet Magazine’s bright yellow $40 “The Gourmet Cookbook.” Read all about the Red Sox, or get lost in the weird and wild world of manga Japanese cartoon-like illustrated novels that are all the rage right now.
Stop in the new Spiral Press Cafe for mushroom bisque, veggie borscht, or a roasted turkey sandwich made with mouth-tingling homemade jalapeno pepper jelly. Top it off with coffee, tea, beer or wine. Take advantage of the cafe’s free wireless Internet. Then, replenished, talk about books with knowledgeable salespeople, or read fashion magazines, books of spiritual guidance, mystery novels like “Exquisite Corpse” by Robert Irwin (the staff, in a handwritten note, calls it “the perfect gift”), or literary fiction like “Ursula, Under” by Ingrid Hill, a book the staff loves so much they have sold more copies of it than any other bookstore in the country.
Northshire, like most bookstores, sells a lot more than new books. It also sells used books. It sells stuffed animals, clocks, dinosaurs, calendars, “Groovy Girls” hip-chick dolls, baby gifts, greeting cards, wrapping paper, videos and CDs. It has a Burt’s Bees display featuring lip gloss, body creme and a wild lettuce toner. It sells candles and soaps, games and crafts, puzzles, and party favors. just before the movie “The Polar Express” opened, it offered an entire section of promotional tieins.
At Northshire, customers find not only the peace to explore, read and think, but also something more important: the temporary satisfaction of their intellectual curiosity – temporary only because new books are always coming in.
Independent bookstores are supposed to be an endangered species. Ten years ago, the American Booksellers Association had 10,000 members; today it has just under 2,000. In the age of Amazon.com, Internet sales, big-box bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and the endless demand on people’s time from careers, families, television and scores of other entertainment options, it is hard to imagine an independent bookstore surviving, much less thriving.
But just last year, Northshire finished a $1 million renovation which doubled its floor size to 10,000-square-feet and added 3,000 square feet of cafe/restaurant and back-office space. It employs a staff of close to 40 people, including five master booksellers, and it has sales well in excess of $3 million a year.
How does Northshire beat the odds?
“We do what we do with irresistible expertise, passion and joy,” said master salesman Bill Lewis. “We kill the customers with kindness. We dazzle them with expertise and we reassure them with honesty. And I can’t think of any thing else to say.”
According to the ABA’s media liaison, Meg Zelickson Smith, about 1.176 billion new and used books were sold in the United States last year. Independent book stores were responsible for 16 percent of them. For an independent book store to thrive, it must be well-run, Smith said.
“The truth is that as many stores may be impacted by competition, there are as many, like Northshire, that are expanding because they are run by good business people,” Smith said. “They understand consumers, marketing, and what works in their neighborhood. They’re well-capitalized. Bookstores go out of business for the same reason other businesses go down – the people running them are not good business people.”
Northshire was started in 1976 by Barbara and Edward Morrow, who are still active in the day-to-day, management of the store. Currently, they are slowly passing the torch to their younger son, general manager Chris Morrow, 38.
Northshire is clearly a labor of love. When Barbara Morrow is on the selling floor, she seems to know most of the customers by name. As she walks through the aisles, she bends down to pick up tiny pieces of litter and takes them to the nearest wastebasket.
“When I go in other bookstores, I straighten the shelves,” she says. ‘It’s in the blood.”
According to banker Daniel Stannard, senior vice president of Factory Point National Bank, the Morrow family knows as much about their business and their industry as any client he has ever had. Besides being the Morrows banker, Stannard is one of their fans.
“I tell Ed Morrow this story,” Stannard said. “Long before I ever knew
I would work in this community, I came to the bookstore from time to time for book readings because they had authors who didn’t come to the Burlington area. The Morrow family are constantly looking for ways to keep their customers happy and build their business. You can’t afford to be lax and you can’t afford to let the business manage itself They continually look for feedback from their customers, and then they do something with that feedback.”
In part, Northshire is protected by its geography. The closest big-box book store is in Albany, NY, about an hour and a half away. There’s another in Saratoga, NY. But still, Northshire draws a large number of its customers from these very same areas.
“We have a huge customer base in the Albany area, Schenectady, in Glens Falls and Saratoga,” said Barbara. “We have people from the Berkshires who come up, and very loyal customers from the Williamstown (MA) area and Bennington. We have become a destination store, and we are working very hard to continue being a destination store.”
Northshire is only one of several independent bookstores in Vermont, Barbara is quick to point out.
“It’s the Vermont tradition to help sustain independent businesses,” she said. “Also, we’re away from a metropolitan area, so I think reading is valued as a pastime. Also people read for information. Reading is very important to a lot of people in this area.”
Customer service is the main key to Northshire’s continued success.
“Our customers know if they come here, and don’t find the book they want and they most often do – we will get it to them,” Barbara said. “We will go to all lengths to find what they’re looking for.”
Another key, said Chris Morrow, is the carefully created ambiance – the wood paneling, the carpets, the music, the nooks and crannies, the many colors of the book covers, toys and games.
“You know when you walk in here that it’s not a big box store,” Chris said.. “Nothing is corporate or uniform. Everything is custom-built. Our country is getting corporatized, and wherever you go, you can have the same shopping experience. People appreciate more and more the uniqueness that individual businesses can offer. That’s one of our advantages.” The third key is book selection.
“We have excellent book buyers,” Chris said. “They are constantly sorting through the 100,000 or so book titles published every year, looking for the best for Northshire customers. Our goal isn’t to fill a huge space with 100,000 titles. It’s to take the 40,000 best books available and offer them to our customers. We’re constantly getting feedback on how good a job we do on that. People run into books they hadn’t dreamed are available.”
Book selling is a quirky business.
“We have hundreds of vendors, everything from publishers like Random House, which is owned by huge corporation, to mom-and-pops that publish one book from their basement in Iowa,” Chris said. People don’t get rich in the book-selling business. Profit margins are slim.
“The general industry average is 40-45 percent gross profit, not net profit,” Chris said. “But it’s a very labor intensive industry. We’re getting 40 cents on the dollar, but we’re putting 20-to-25 percent of it into payroll and occupancy. It’s not an efficient industry by nature. Across the country, a lot of bookstores are happy to break even at the end of the year, but a goal of 3- to 5 percent net profit is good in the book business. Most other businesses are expecting 10-to 15 percent.”
Working with a small profit margin means that paying the staff a living wage will always be a struggle. Still, employee loyalty at Northshire is remarkable. One person has been with the Morrows for 21 years, and 10 or 15 years of employment is not uncommon.
“One of our reasons for expanding was to be able to expand our gross sales so we can increase our margins and pay our staff better, ” Barbara said. “We just raised our minimum wage to $9 an hour. It’s very good for the book business. There are still bookstores that start people at between $6 and $7.
The book business is filled with people who love books. They are willing to make less money because they enjoy aspects that don’t go directly to the bottom line.
“There’s an altruistic part of selling books,” Barbara said. “People love books, reading, sharing what they’ve read with other people – it’s all part of it. There are people who tell us they’ve moved to Manchester because of this bookstore. We’re contributing to the culture and the education of the area.”
Another perk is meeting and having conversations with interesting authors, and getting together with fellow booksellers.
“The exposure to the ideas and entertainment that come through our doors is very nourishing,” Chris said. “Also, booksellers are very involved in protecting our First Amendment rights. T here are a lot of national issues we’re involved in.”
For authors, Northshire is something of a haven. The store puts on at least two and sometimes four – literary events a week. Touring authors and poets read from their latest works. Children are educated and entertained. The new cafe sponsors a singer-songwriter series. Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher, who has been giving readings at Northshire for many years, said he has visited over 100 small and large bookstores in the United States, and, “Northshire is one of the two or three best.”
“First of all, every time I walk through there, the first thing I see is a dozen or so of my favorite contemporary novels and non-fiction books,” Mosher said. “Then, the booksellers that the Morrows have hired over the years are, I think, the most knowledgeable booksellers I’ve ever met. They’ve actually read the books they sell and know an enormous amount about them.”
All of Mosher’s events at the store have been well attended and well advertised, he said.
“That indicates the store has a large and loyal clientele of book buyers who haven’t defected to the chain stores or Amazon,” he said. “They go into Northshire, where they know they’re going to get good advice from professional booksellers.”
Northshire has been especially hospitable to Vermont authors, Mosher said.
“The Morrows have a strong commitment not just to Vermont readers but to Vermont writers as well,” Mosher said. “These people are professionals in every sense of the word. They love books and they love selling books. And it’s hard in this day and age, when serious books sell 4,000 copies apiece. But these books need to be written and read. I always look forward to going to Northshire. There’s something intangible – the wonderful atmosphere in the store. Many of the customers have come there for years on end and are also friends. Many of the staff members have worked there for a long, long time. This may be a cliche, but I think the staff is kind of an extended family. I wish all book stores were like Northshire.”
In recognition of its contributions to Vermont’s culture, Northshire was named the “Business of the Year” by the Vermont Council of the Arts in 2004.
“We present one award each year in recognition of enthusiastic leadership in support of art and culture in Vermont,” said Andrea Stander, the Vermont Council of the Arts’ communications director. “Northshire, to us, has done an extraordinary job of providing a venue to authors and poets. They’ve also done a tremendous amount with kids and literacy. I think their Web site has done an incredible job of reaching out beyond the immediate area they serve. A lot of people know about them because of that. Also, they’re really out front on the issue of freedom of speech.”
A Dream of a Bookstore
Ed and Barbara Morrow are both New Yorkers. Barbara grew up in privileged Westchester County, the daughter of an advertising executive. Ed was the son of a New York Times correspondent; his mother was a journalist and English teacher. He grew up mostly outside the country. “We met when we were both at Columbia in New York,” Barbara said. “We took a political science class together. We got married and lived at Columbia for a while, and then we were overseas for a while when Ed worked for Care International.”
When the couple moved back to New York, Ed began a career on Wall Street. They had two small children when, in about 1975, they decided to go into business together.
“We started looking at different businesses, and very quickly, the idea of a bookstore was something we became excited about,” Barbara said. They spent the next two years searching New England for a good location.
“We wanted to either buy an established bookstore or start our own, so we traveled on weekends and during vacations,” Barbara said. “We took our kids with us most of the time, and we got to see a lot of the area. Our market research was pounding the streets talking to people. We talked to a lot of shop owners, asking what business was like for them, what they saw as the potential.” When they came to Manchester, they looked to see what other businesses the town was supporting.
“Even then, long before the outlet boom, Manchester was obviously a retail Mecca where people from outlying towns would do their shopping,” Barbara said. “There were a couple of car dealerships, doctors and dentists, a couple of supermarkets, some clothing shops. It was thriving. We figured this town was going to go places eventually, andd we hit it right. The rest is history, so to speak.”
At that time Manchester had fewer than 4,000 full-time residents, but it already had three bookstores. One carried hard-cover books, another trade paperbacks, and another mass market books and magazines. The Morrows combined all three categories when they made their store.
“We even had records in those days, because there was no record store,” Barbara said. “And from Day One, it was a huge success. People used to tell us that even with three bookstores, they had to go to Boston or New York for their books.”
Eventually, the other bookstores went out of business.
“They closed one by one,” Barbara said. “I guess because of us. We just became, more and more, the bookstore in Manchester.”
The Morrows named the store Northshire because, at the time, Bennington County was trying to decide on a location for its county seat – in the northern part of the county, or in the southern part. (Shire means county.) Bennington ended up with two county seats and Manchester ended up with a bookstore called Northshire.
Northshire started as a small, 1,300-square-foot bookstore across the street from the present location. Two years later, the Morrows opened another level and added an extensive children’s department. In 1985 they bought the old Colburn Inn across the street after it went into bankruptcy. Later, they started a used bookstore nearby.
Last December, they completed the expansion, combining the inn and the used book store with a large new space They also added the cafe – the food operation is leased – and increased their parking, put in a wide and elegant castiron stairway leading to a spacious and comfortable children’s department, and added a usedbook space that doubles as an authors’ reading room.
To keep up with the goal of continued excellence in customer service, in the mid1980s, Northshire was part of the first wave of bookstores to computerize.
“We saw early on that was obviously the only way to go,” Barbara said. “We used to hand-write a card for every title, and that was laborious. So we found a computer hardware and software company with a bookstore program. That was something we could help develop along with them. We always tried to stay ahead of the curve in that area.” Having a presence on the Web was another early innovation. “Long before most independent bookstores starting developing Web sites, we began developing ours,” Barbara said. “We do a certain amount of business on-line every day. It’s not a huge amount, but we definitely have a presence. We have an IT person in the store, dedicated to helping us maintain not only our Web site, but our hardware and software.”
In terms of customer service, Northshire will order any book for a customer, no matter how obscure the title, author or publishing house.
“Often we lose money on these things,” Barbara said. “If you order one book from a small publisher, you are definitely losing money. But we figure it’s
worth it in the long run. We’ve gained a customer, or kept a customer, and made that customer happy, and that is our ultimate goal.” It has been reported that the number of serious readers in the United States has dropped to an all-time low, but Northshire does not see it reflected in its sales.
“There are fewer discretionary hours in most people’s days, so perhaps people are finding less time to read,” Barbara said. “But our experience is that people are reading. Kids are reading. We don’t see in the near future, anyway, that we’re in danger. We also carry music, DVDs, games, a lot of what we call ‘sidelines,’ or non-book merchandise. And it helps make the store more interesting and also helps the bottom line.”
When the Morrows started, the store was a mom-and-pop operation. As they began to add employees, they learned management on the fly. “I think that’s probably the most challenging part of any business,” Barbara said. “You learn from your mistakes. Hopefully. And we’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, but we’ve also made some very good choices. I used to think that anybody could be a manager. But it’s not an innate thing. It’s something you learn. One of the things we would do early on was, if we had a good person who was a good bookseller, or good at something, we would promote him or her to a manager’s position. In a lot of cases it just didn’t work out. We would coach them and send them to seminars, and it just wouldn’t work out. I don’t think you can necessarily think that because a person’s good at one thing, they can necessarily be a good manager.”
The sales staff is enthusiastic and well-trained. They practice “hand selling,” which means taking the books to the customers and the customers to the books. They think of their work in almost spiritual terms.
“I tell my staff that customer service is not only good business but the right thing to do,” said sales floor manager Erik Barnum. “We practice Zen and the art of customer service.”
According to Barnum, the staff is trained along German lines; in that country, potential booksellers go to school to learn their trade and become “master booksellers” upon graduation.
“Here, Northshire is the school,” Barnum said. “The staff goes to seminars and conventions. We read. We talk about books all day long. We have a passion for books, It’s amazing to me that we have such a dedicated, eccentric, passionate staff. I would be blessed if I have one master bookseller, and I have five. Each has been here for a minimum of 10 years. No one is getting rich selling books. We have good benefits here, and a discount, but you don’t save money. You just buy more books.” Making people feel appreciated is the key to running a good business, Barbara said.
“Now we’ve evolved into a very strong business,” she said. “We have close to 40 employees. We have a management team of about nine: our sales floor manager, our children’s department manager, our IT guy, our head buyer, Ed, me, Chris, our marketing manager, one other person. We try to pay attention to people’s needs and strengths. Striving for excellence is what it’s all about.”
Chris Morrow did not intend to take over his parents’ business. “I worked in the store on and off, but I never wanted to take it over when I was growing up)” Chris said. “I wanted to get far away. I was in Thailand, in the Peace Corps, after college. Then I went to graduate school in Michigan and did some more work overseas. Over the years, each time I came back to Vermont I liked it more and more. I finally found the bookstore more and more appealing. At a certain point, everything clicked and my desire to be with my family and be in Vermont and be in the book business came together. The business was at the point of evolution when it needed new energy to make the expansion happen and there was an opportunity for me to contribute, so that’s what happened.”
When Chris came to the store, about six years ago, his parents made sure he worked in every department.
“Then he met his wife and she’s from Vermont,” Barbara said. “So he’s got very deep roots here now. They have two kids. It’s nice for us.” Chris’s older brother Andy, 40, also worked in the store for a while, helping to launch the used-book business. He is now “looking for adventures in the art world,” Chris said.
The family has not yet worked out the details of an ownership transfer.
The elder Morrows have yet to leave the store.
“We’re here to help Chris take over the reins, and we have a good management team that is a great help to Chris as well,” Barbara said. “The specifics of transfer are stiff unknown. He’s already a part owner..
Free Speech Issues
Booksellers like the Morrows are active in many First Amendment issues and organizations.
In early 2003, when First Lady Laura Bush refused to host a gathering of poets in the White House – to honor Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman – because she was afraid they would speak out against war in Iraq, Northshire quickly organized a massive poetry reading in protest. Eleven renowned poets, including Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley and Jamaica Kincaid, spoke and read to an overflow crowd of 500 in Manchester’s First Congregational Church.
“I would like to thank Mrs Bush for being so thin-skinned,” Kincaid said at the time. “To think that a woman who lies down at night and has dinner across from a man who is the lord and master of weapons of mass destruction, and plans to use them, could not listen to the words of some poets who disagree with him!”
Now battle is being waged over the USA PATRIOT Act. This September, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (www.abffe.org) sent a petition with 185,000 signatures to Congress, asking that it restore protections for reader privacy which were eliminated by Section 215 of the act.
“The readers of America are demanding the right to read freely,” said American Booksellers Association COO Oren Teicher at the time. The ABFFE petition was presented to Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is sponsoring a bill to exempt booksellers and libraries from being forced to make their records available to the government.
“The PATRIOT Act is written so that the government can demand our customer files of what people have read or ordered and it would be illegal for us to even disclose to anyone else that the files were taken,” Chris said. “Obviously, it would be a federal offense to deny the FBI access to them. We have not been asked for records. We are fighting so we wouldn’t have to. This law is contrary to the Constitution and its Amendments. We are part of a large group trying to get the Act modified to align with our Constitutional rights. Bernie has been great on this issue.”
The PATRIOT Act is not the only problem the booksellers are facing.
‘Both on the state level and federally, there have been anti-pornography laws passed which were written so broadly that there was significant danger in how they could be interpreted and implemented,” Chris said. “These were in regard to the free dissemination of speech on the Internet and in bookstores and libraries. Northshire was a party to the lawsuit which overturned the state law.”
One plan for the future – still on hold – is for Northshire to become an inhouse publisher. The Morrows are interested in having a press and being able to print and bind books on demand. This Plan will have to wait until binding technology improves.
“It is not where it needs to be for us to feel comfortable putting out the level of product we want to put out,” Chris said. “But it will be there in the next few years.”
Currently, Chris is working on maximizing the new space, offering even more events, and organizing a children’s book club.
“Parents, aunts and uncles can sign up for an annual program,” Chris said. “We can have our expert booksellers send one book a month to the child of their choice based on gender, age, reading interests, reading level, etc. We feel this is the kind of program that capitalizes on our strength as booksellers, and makes it easy for people to encourage literacy in their lives and in children’s lives whether they’re here or across the county.”
Chris also wants Northshire to be working more closely with publishers, helping them to make life easier for independent booksellers. “We’re members of the Independent Booksellers Consortium,” Chris said. “It’s a group of about 25 of the bigger independents, and We meet every six months at a member’s store location for a long weekend of ideas and conversations. We hosted one last weekend and invited publishers from New York and Boston to have a big sitdown dinner with us on Saturday night. We need to create more opportunities for publishers and booksellers to meet. There are a lot of inefficiencies and stresses in the industry right now. We need to talk about terms, about buying non-returnables -we’re allowed to return a percentage of books we buy from publishers – how to market books better, how to promote reading in general, basic operational efficiencies on their end. There’s a lot to talk about. The publishers were quite open to it. It’s up to us to follow up..
The Morrows are also thinking about opening another store.
“We are looking at Glens Falls,” Chris said. “The city has been recruiting us. But no decisions have been made on that yet. If we do. open more stores, we won’t become a big chain. It will be a few select stores.”
As the Morrows strive for continued excellence, they know. that complacency is their biggest enemy.
“You work at it, all the time,” Barbara said. “If we say, ‘Oh, we’re so good we don’t have to try harder,’ that could be a big mistake. We’re always out there, stretching. And we’re looking for staff who want to do that too, and who take pride in it.”
Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Dec 01, 2004
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