Annie Philbrick, co-owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, spoke with The Book Report Network’s Teenreads earlier this summer for its series “Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books.”
Philbrick, who was interviewed by Teenreads.com Editorial Manager Shara Zaval, spoke about becoming a bookstore owner without having ever worked in one, how she chooses the right books for the Mystic community, some of the store’s most memorable customers, creative and engaging special events and programming, and her favorite — and least favorite — parts of the job.
Below are a few excerpts from the extensive three-part interview, which can be read in its entirety on the Teenreads website.
Since Philbrick’s interview, Bank Square Books announced it will be opening a new store in nearby Westerly, Rhode Island, as part of a joint project with area developers.
Teenreads: When did you become a bookseller?
Annie Philbrick: The store has been in Mystic for 25 years, and we bought it in 2006. The background to that is I was working at UConn at a small-business development center, where I helped people start small businesses. I had owned other businesses before — a landscape business and a garden designing business.
My son, who now works at Three Lives in New York City’s East Village, was working at Bank Square Books at Christmastime in 2005; it was our local bookstore.
One day he came home and told me that the wife of the owner of Bank Square, Stuart, took early retirement from the Mystic Seaport [maritime museum] and was going to work at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and that Stuart might be selling the store. In January, I went in to pick up my son’s check and I said to Stuart, “I hear you might sell the store — talk to me if you are!” And he says to me, “I am going to sell the store. And if you want to buy it, we should talk.”
So three of us got together — we weren’t best friends but we were friends, and how we came together we still can’t quite explain — and six months later, we bought it. And now there are two owners; one woman left. So that’s how we ended up buying it. And the learning curve was steep! I’d never owned a bookstore. I mean, I was a huge reader and I knew small businesses, but still, this was something different.
Read more from Part 1 of Teenreads’ interview with Philbrick.
Teenreads: What would you say is the role of an independent bookstore in a community?
Annie Philbrick: The key word in that is “community.” I think the role is to provide a cultural literary interaction with our customers. And with people who may not know they’re our customers, but who we’d like to develop into customers, especially the kids who come into our store. We just want to make them feel welcome. My cocker spaniel comes into the store and just rolls all over the floor with the kids.
For Mystic, it’s really helping keep that town vibrant and alive. I think reading is just vitally important, and we live in such a digital age — we’re on computers, laptops, and iPhones all the time. But to just sit back and be able to put a book into somebody’s hand is such a special thing because you’re really giving part of yourself to them by recommending a book.
It’s interesting — at an editor event this morning, we talked about a book called Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It by Ian Leslie (Basic Books), and it basically says that because of the Internet, people are less curious about things. It’s just keeping that cultural literacy in the world, and really putting it in people’s hands.
Read more from Part 2 of Teenreads’ interview with Philbrick.
Teenreads: Would you have any advice for aspiring booksellers or bookstore owners?
Annie Philbrick: Well, it’s interesting — I think if someone wants to open a bookstore, they should do some research and talk to their regional organization, and the American Booksellers Association, which can help them get started. And if you’re passionate about it, just to do it!
And for aspiring booksellers, go work in a bookstore. You won’t necessarily make a lot of money, but it’s a very rewarding business. When we bought it, we didn’t do much research at all.
I was on a panel about store succession at a conference because I had bought Bank Square Books. Green Apple Books from San Francisco was on it because they had a different business model for buying the store, and the third person was from Score, a volunteer organization of retired executives that help people with businesses.
As I was telling the story of buying the store and how I had never owned a bookstore, the person from Score said, “That’s really risky. To buy a bookstore never having owned one before — and never having worked in one before. That’s crazy!” And I said, “Yeah! But I’m still here.” And it’s still here. We’ve turned a corner since 2008 and now we are really on the publishers’ radar, and we are strong.
What’s interesting is that you’re going to have to educate some customers and remind them that you’re there, and that shopping locally is good. This is because, for example, when Borders opened stores across the country, it shut out a lot of the smaller guys. And then Borders closed and those regions didn’t have any bookstores. So if there wasn’t a close enough bookstore, people tended to go online to get their books. If one chooses to open a bookstore in one of those communities where people have been trained to shop online, you’re going to have to educate them to bring them into your store. But I think it’s possible. I think people sometimes get tired of being online. I can’t tell you how many people have come into the store and said, “I love the smell of books! I just love holding a book in my hand.” Maybe they have a reading device, but people realize what it’s like to have a book in their hands. And a book makes a perfect gift for people.
Read more from Part 3 of Teenreads’ interview with Philbrick.
Excerpts reprinted with permission of The Book Report Network, which connects readers with books and authors through seven editorial websites: Bookreporter.com, 20SomethingReads.com, Teenreads.com, Kidsreads.com, ReadingGroupGuides.com, GraphicNovelReporter.com, and FaithfulReader.com.