Colgate Bookstore Revitalizes Town

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Since its founding in 1819 in Hamilton, New York, Colgate Bookstore has undergone a number of incarnations, migrating around the Colgate University campus to various academic halls, a basement, and other temporary homes. Its latest and, likely, last relocation may be its most dramatic, however. The bookstore moved a mile off campus and now occupies a central position in downtown Hamilton. The move, which increased the store's square footage and customer base significantly, has also sparked the town's renaissance.

The Colgate Bookstore in downtown Hamilton.

In 2000, Hamilton's business district was struggling. When one of its most visible businesses, a photography studio, left, a 25,000-square-foot building in poor repair lay empty. Around that time, representatives from Colgate University were meeting extensively with local community members to find ways to counteract the area's decline. The result was the creation of the for-profit Hamilton Initiative. The Initiative purchased six village properties that needed substantial renovations, including the 25,000-square-foot corner property that would house the new bookstore.

In 2002, after extensive renovations, Colgate Bookstore moved into the now beautiful, brick building, dating back to 1895. The bookstore increased its square footage by nearly 10,000 feet, and inventory rose from 18,000 volumes to 35,000.

"The bookstore has changed every way possible," said Leslie Green Guilbault, the store's director. "We've changed the physical size of the store, store merchandise, and policy. We have new technology and many more events than we had on campus. Every way a store could change, ours has changed."

Colgate Bookstore's book department.

The new space houses a cafe, a larger general book department, and textbooks, as well as genres not typically found in college stores -- local authors, children's books, cookbooks, gardening and craft books, and high school reference. The New York Times and Book Sense bestseller titles are displayed at the front of the store. The bookstore also sells CDs and DVDs and is the largest independent music retailer in central New York. On the top floor is a room that is used to hold special events, which is also made available for public use.

Since leaving campus, the bookstore is much more involved with the community. Among the events launched is an annual book fair. Store manager Rob Stahl, who organized the event, said, "For the first one, we had five or six local independent booksellers on the town green, we had musicians ... food, and a children's story hour. It was a great event. The second was bigger.... We had over 250 attendees."

Along with the bookstore, the town has undergone a metamorphosis of its own. Stahl said with Colgate's involvement vis-a-vis the Hamilton Initiative, the downtown went from boarded up to buzzing, with a new theater/night club, ice cream store, jewelry store, and restaurants, among other new businesses. The few storefronts that are still available Stahl speculated would be "rented by the end of the first quarter."

Stahl, meanwhile, has applied his talent for renovation and growth to boost resources available to central New York independent bookstores. He organized the first Shop Talk for area booksellers, and 40 booksellers came. The second Shop Talk was co-sponsored by the New England and New Atlantic Independent Booksellers associations. A third area Shop Talk will be held on April 12 in Syracuse. (For more information, contact Stahl at (315) 228-7481, or via e-mail, at rstahl@mail.colgate.edu.)

Of the many changes at the Colgate Bookstore, Stahl said, "We're now much more of a general bookstore. We focus on what the community is interested in. Though it was somewhat like that on campus, we've taken on a whole different feel. Then we felt like a college store, now we feel like an independent bookstore." About the revitalization outside the store, Stahl said, "It's a shining beacon of a little town that's turned things around." --Karen Schechner