Spotlight on an Indie Bookstore: Phoenix Books in Vermont
Vermont itself is a reader’s dream — a beautiful, fresh, and contemplative place that offers a wonderful environment to read. No institution exemplifies this more than Phoenix Books, an awesome independent bookstore that, as of this summer, has two locations in Vermont to enjoy: one is in Essex, and the other is their brand-new location on main street Burlington! Walk into either of these locations and you’re walking into a bookies dream. But not just that! This store meets the needs of environmentalists, coffee-enthusiasts, artists and artist-adorers, activists, and just about everyone in between. It’s a welcoming, friendly place where you can come alone or come with the family to enjoy a fun event, a good cup of coffee, some art, and of course, a great book! I have had the pleasure of working with the Phoenix Books staff for only a short while now, but I am completely won over by their warmth, passionate values, and enthusiasm for books (oh and not to mention their wealth of knowledge on fun topics like teas of the world and herbalism to name a few). Today, two representatives from the store, Beth Wagner and Kristen Eaton give us the scoop on Phoenix Books. We welcome them and congratulate them and the entire Phoenix staff on their second location!
Background on the store(s)
Phoenix Books was established in 2007 on the principles of social responsibility, community, and sustainability, and is a proud member of Local First Vermont and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. Phoenix Books Burlington and Phoenix Books Essex are locally-owned, independent bookstores. Our Essex location also houses a gallery and cafe. Whenever possible, Phoenix Books sources eco-friendly products from Fair Trade/Green Certified companies as well as local artisans.
Can you discuss the evolution of the 2nd store location and how the opening week festivities went?
When I was a kid, there were tons of bookstores in Burlington. Then the bigger chains came in, and most of those smaller stores fell by the wayside. When Borders closed, a huge opportunity opened up. Phoenix co-owners Mike DeSanto and Renee Reiner decided to go with a Community Sustained Enterprise model to raise capital for a new bookstore in Burlington. This model consists of a community of individuals who pledge to support a company by pre-buying a package of goods directly from the company, similar to a CSA (community supported agriculture) model.
We’ve had a huge response from the community, telling us how thrilled they are to have Phoenix in Burlington. The new store – which is twice the size of Phoenix Books’ Essex location – carries 25,000 volumes of new books, with an emphasis on local authors, an extensive children’s department with educational games and toys, as well as cards, stationery and gift items. Plus, hundreds of thousands of titles are available on our website, as both print books and eBooks. Phoenix Books Burlington, like Phoenix Books Essex, hosts author events, children’s activities, workshops, and more.
The Grand Opening was a blast. Burlington’s mayor, Miro Weinberger, cut the ribbon with the requisite giant pair of scissors on Friday morning. Friday was Local Authors’ Day, when we launched a consignment program that makes it possible for us to carry books by local authors who are published through companies that we don’t have a regular business relationship with – as well as an events program that makes it possible for us to collaborate on publicity efforts and costs with these authors. We’ve had an almost overwhelmingly positive response to these programs. On Saturday and Sunday, Vermont State Senator Hinda Miller, former Governor Madeleine Kunin, and cookbook author Andrea Chesman provided a wonderful mix of politics and pickles. We also had a huge giveaway of goodies donated by some of our favorite publishers.
When you go to a chain store or shop online, you get exactly what you’re looking for – and that’s all. At Phoenix, you get the tactile experience of coming into a one-of-a-kind bookstore, where every title on the shelves is hand-picked. You get to consult with booksellers who can help you find your next great read – and that’s very likely to be a title you never would have heard of had you chosen a bigger, corporate bookstore. When you buy that next great read, you get to know that your money is staying local – going toward local jobs, patronizing local businesses, and being donated to local charities. We also make a point of supporting local authors, both through carrying their books and through events. We have an established Local Authors’ Program, which lets us collaborate with new and self-published authors on publicity efforts and costs. At Phoenix Essex, we also have a cafe and art gallery. We host several art exhibits per year that feature Vermont artists. We serve meals, munchies, and custom-made espresso drinks at our cafe – as well as wines and microbrews! Where else can you sip on a glass of wine while browsing the shelves?
What, if any, new things are you doing to stay competitive and to serve the needs of your customers?
I think diversification and specificity have both been key here: Diversification because we carry a variety of stationery, cards, and gifts (like pottery by local artisans and fair trade jewelry from the Burlington, VT organization Hope for Women), plus we have the cafe and gallery in Essex. Specificity because every single item is handpicked, and because we absolutely love to handsell. I think it’s incredibly important to take the time to tell the customer – in person or on a shelftalker – why you love this or that book in particular. Our customers regularly thank us for our recommendations: I think they would much rather choose a book based on a personal recommendation than on some algorithm or even a bestseller list.
Our nature-related events have been a huge hit. Every spring, right before the salamanders begin their yearly migration to breeding pools , we co-host Newt Night in our Essex store with our friends at the North Branch Nature Center of Montpelier. We invite budding scientists of all ages, concerned citizens, and naturalists-at-heart to learn about Vermont’s Amphibian Monitoring Program. This is a perfect opportunity to get hands-on experience, become educated about Vermont’s amphibian population, and learn how to assist in their protection/preservation. This is the kind of event we love to host: it’s both educational and fun!
What events do you have coming up?
Tons! We have biologist Bernd Heinrich visiting both stores the end of this month to talk about Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death. For something completely different, we have a Where’s Waldo Party on the 31st – complete with staff members costumed as Waldo and Wenda. In August, we host our monthly knit night, two events that are part of our Local Authors’ Program, and Discoveries in Wine, a wine seminar featuring wines from Argentina. Our Fall schedule is already pretty packed, with kids’ events like an Educators’ Night, Read for the Record, and a Seuss-themed Pajama Party, and adult events with authors like local mystery writer Archer Mayor and the “godmother of American herbalism,” Rosemary Gladstar.
What books have you made bestsellers at your store because the staff got behind them?
One of our all-time bestsellers is Tracey Campbell Pearson’s Bob, a delightful picture book about a rooster who hasn’t yet found his cock-a-doodle-do. Tracey is a great friend of the store, living just down the road, so she comes in often to sign stock for us. I’ve seen her read Bob to a group of 40+ rapt preschoolers– it’s truly a sight to behold. Bob is just so much fun!
How important are your e-newsletter and social media to your customer outreach?
Hugely important. The internet is (mostly) free and completely interactive. We get to learn what are customers are looking for at the same time that we share all the books and events that we’re excited about. It’s a wonderful give and take. The internet is an amazing medium for grassroots outreach.
What are your favorite titles out this summer?
The picture book Zorro Gets an Outfit has been a staff favorite (especially for those of us who have a penchant for dressing up our pets!). With the recent release of Bitterblue, many of our booksellers are revisiting Graceling. There’s a waiting list to borrow the staff copy, which is growing increasingly worn. I’m excited to see The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens out in paperback. Great fantasy adventure for both boys and girls, and it has local appeal as well–it’s set in the Lake Champlain region. Released in late winter, Wonder by R.J. Palacio has started to take off this summer. It’s a great read for back to school and addresses the topic of bullying so thoughtfully.
What are some titles you’re really looking forward to this fall?
I don’t even know how to describe Every Day by David Levithan without spoiling it. It’s such a unique premise and bound to generate a lot of important conversations about gender, ethics, and the nature of love. Three of us at Phoenix have read it thus far and we’re counting the days until we can share it with our customers.