Between the covers is where they live to be
Independence defines the browsers, the buyers, and the sellers whose shared capital is books
Suzanne and William Arrand of Worcester, Vt., browse at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
MONTPELIER - Robert Kasow looks mighty relaxed for a small business owner, given the economic turmoil everywhere.
"I don't think I could re-create this business anyplace else," said the proprietor of Rivendell Books. "Montpelier is America the way it used to be."
The nation's smallest state capital, population 7,495, is home to four independent bookstores whose creaky floors and aisles of books continue to lure devoted customers. Visitors seeking local color can scope out downtown by foot in under an hour unless they linger over a cup at Capitol Grounds Coffee, research pellet stoves at Aubuchon Hardware, or debate vinyl vs. downloads over bins of vintage albums at Riverwalk Records. In this compact seat of government, merchants sell outdoor gear, crafts, and consignment goods, but there's no Barnes & Noble, no
One recent Thursday, four writers arrived for a weekend in this city where we first met as midcareer students at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Four years later, we were back to celebrate "The Disorder of Longing," the first published novel by one of our own, Natasha Bauman, of Venice, Calif. Writer and editor Virginia Reiser from South Dennis met Bauman's plane in Burlington, while poet Kitty Forbes from Lookout Mountain, Ga., made the three-hour drive with me from Boston.
Checking into Betsy's Bed & Breakfast almost felt like coming home. As students, we had opted for Betsy's thick quilts and private bathrooms, forsaking the nearby dorms while attending intensive 10-day workshops on campus. We dubbed ourselves the Parlor Girls, and many an evening we gathered to unwind over a glass of wine in a sitting room. Our college days were over, but we were back to de-stress and refresh, and to explore the town to see what had changed. Could the small bookstores be the charmers we remembered?
But first, dinner. At the Black Door Bar and Bistro, exposed brick, dark walls, and dim lighting encourage diners to focus on the slow-simmered entrees made with local and organic ingredients. Our reunion kicked off with seared salmon ($14), cider braised short ribs ($14), and grilled rack of lamb with roasted pumpkin and spiced maple syrup glaze ($22).
The next morning, our search began in earnest at Bear Pond Books.
"I love that the old wooden bookcases don't match and that while chain bookstores all look the same, this building has always been part of the town," Bauman said.
Founded in 1973, Bear Pond was across the street until 1992 when a massive flood soaked its basement. Loyal customers helped salvage most of the inventory and move the rest across the street. Two years ago, Claire Benedict and her husband, Kasow, bought their second shop from its longtime owners.
Benedict calls Bear Pond "a good old-fashioned bookstore, highly Vermont."
We liked the wide selection of cards, its strength in fiction, and cookbooks that Benedict said are popular with students and faculty at New England Culinary Institute. (The institute's presence permeates the town: Students train in its bakery cafe, La Brioche; an upscale restaurant, the Main Street Grill; and a nearby catering center.)
Bear Pond Books also earned high marks for its knowledgeable staff. "Among qualities I look for," Reiser said, "are clerks who know about quirky books and new authors, like ourselves, and whether there's a bulletin board or wall where I can find what's going on in the community, especially when traveling." Forbes was happy to discover poetry collections by individuals rather than the standard anthologies. She bought three before reluctantly moving on.
Downtown is neither spiffed up nor shabby. Much of it was built in the late 1800s with brick or granite from local quarries. Few buildings rise above three stories. One exception is the old City Hall, now home to the Lost Nation Theater, a regional acting troupe.
Independence, living green, and locally owned were all gospel here well before most of us heard the term "carbon footprint." Long before Europeans settled west of the North Branch River in the 1780s, Native Americans lived here. Montpelier's history is chronicled in a wonderful exhibit at the Vermont Historical Society Museum, next to the State House and state Supreme Court. Named for the state motto, "Freedom and Unity: One Ideal, Many Stories," 18 interactive displays explore the questions, "Who are Vermonters? What is Wise Use of the Land? How do we foster a democratic society?"
"There's a greater sense of community here," said Kasow of Rivendell Books. "People know who their neighbors are and help each other out. Montpelier is progressive, for the most part, and politically aware. They're tenacious about supporting local business and businesses cater to the local population, not tourists."
Nonetheless, we tourists couldn't resist his shelves of new, rare, and used books. A stop at Rivendell always turns up surprises because what's available varies by what regulars bring in to trade for store credit or cash. One well-marked aisle ends at an overstuffed chair next to an old wood cabinet crammed with antiquarian, signed, and out-of-print books. In the Children's Room, a Russian desert tortoise named Veruca sometimes roams the aisles.
Rick Powell bought The Book Garden three years ago. He said business has improved 25 percent every year since.
"Montpelier has a literate population," said Powell. "They're very motivated to shop locally to keep downtown viable."
Because his shop is small and narrow, he specializes. Topics include sustainability, Eastern religions, spirituality, alternative medicine, children's books, and collectibles. Powell has been a professional illustrator for 25 years. If you ask about graphic novels and Japanese manga, he'll not only guide you through his selections, he'll explain the genre's origins and predict its new directions.
New to us was Black Sheep Books, an all-volunteer collective founded three years ago and specializing in radical and scholarly used books. A clerk explained that the store's purpose is to support community space for events on cultural and political issues. Most books are used but in excellent condition. My friends were impressed with the quality and depth of the offerings in literature, arts, racism, and women's studies. "There's no trash here," said Bauman.
A place where book lovers feel at home, Montpelier was as good as we remembered.
Janet Mendelsohn can be reached at www.janetmendelsohn.com.