Face Out: ABA Board Member Annie Philbrick on Her Life Among Books

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In this installment in our series profiling American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to Annie Philbrick, co-owner of both Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café, which is scheduled to open in Westerly, Rhode Island, in February 2016. Philbrick is in her first three-year term as a Board director.

BTW: Please talk about your early experiences with reading and books.

Annie Philbrick: My love of reading began at a very young age. We had this small room in our home in Seattle where the walls were lined with books and I spent hours climbing up on easy chairs to discover those books way up on the top shelf. I would lean over the back of the chair and read the encyclopedia that lined one of the shelves. My parents encouraged us to read anything. Every summer from the time I was three years old, we left Seattle to spend the season on San Juan Island, near the Canadian border. At the time, not many people were on the island except those born and raised there. We did not have a television or one that got more than a single Canadian channel. We spent a lot of time outside playing farm in the dust and reading on the porch. But before we packed the car and drove the two hours north to the ferry, my mother took her four kids to the Seattle Public Library in the U District where we could check out 10 books for the entire summer. I remember this as being one of my most favorite days. Most of the books I found had something to do with horses — Black Beauty, National Velvet, Misty of Chincoteague, and any British pony club stories I could find. As the years went on, 10 books were not nearly enough to feed my passion and I resorted to whatever paperbacks and Archie and Richie Rich comic books I could find at the Friday Harbor Drugstore. Ever since I can remember, I read lots and read fast, and still do. I may not recall every detail, but I can always remember whether I liked the book or not.

BTW: Did you hold other positions in the book industry before becoming a bookseller?

AP: No, I did not. But I was the mother of a teenage son who wanted to work at Bank Square Books since he was 10 and asked each year for a job. When my son, David, turned 15, Stuart, Bank Square’s previous owner, hired him as a bookseller each summer and Christmas holiday until he went to college. It was from David that I learned the store was for sale in December 2005. When I expressed interest in buying Bank Square Books, David’s response was, “It is not just about selling books, Mom, it’s a really complicated business but I think you can do it.” And here we are.

BTW: How did you begin as a bookseller, and how long after starting in bookselling did you begin to feel that you had found a special vocation?

AP: I began working a couple days a week in Bank Square Books a few months before we closed the sale, following Stuart around and learning from him. At the same time, I was also working at the SBA-funded Small Business Development Center at the University of Connecticut helping people start their small businesses. I wasn’t very good at working for a big bureaucracy like UConn and wanted to get back to running my own business. Since books and reading were already a passion of mine, and Bank Square Books was my go-to bookstore in Mystic, buying the store seemed like a no-brainer and made sense to me, no matter how complicated. Little did I know … but I found that I loved being a part of the store. And it was all good to go from there. I love it.

Since Bank Square Books was already an established bookstore for 18 years when Patience Banister, Jane Hannon, and I bought it, we walked into a turnkey operation (Jane returned to teaching after a couple years and Patience and I bought her out), but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a very steep learning curve. It was huge and took us a couple of years to feel like we kind of knew what we were doing. But every day we learn something, and what you can learn from your customers is sometimes the most interesting. Buying our local, independently run bookstore was a lifestyle choice for me: getting involved in the local community, Main Street, riding my bike to work, and being my own boss.

BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?

AP: When we bought Bank Square Books, the store was already a member of ABA so we inherited the membership. As our learning curve began to flatten out, we began to take more advantage of what ABA offered, including the IndieCommerce website and education. I won a scholarship from Beacon Press to the Winter Institute in Louisville and it was there that I was really introduced to what ABA had to offer, and I was blown away.

BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in bookselling since you opened your store?

AP: E-books and digital devices have played a large role in bookselling but I do believe the novelty and usage is leveling off to a plateau and will stay there. With all the social media sites and use of the Internet, I think people are starved for human interaction and the desire to be part of a community. There is no better place to find this than in a bookstore such as Bank Square Books. Customers understand better now why they need to shop in their local downtown and support the independent stores rather than the behemoths and faceless retailers.

BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?

AP: Education and leadership for our industry to enable all members to have the most successful store they can have given their location and resources. I would like to continue to see more communication with the membership and transparency from ABA and our Board to foster a stronger, more strategic partnership between stores, authors, and publishers. We have accomplished a lot already and can only work towards making this partnership even better.

BTW: What are you reading now?

AP: I read mostly fiction. In my small Shinola notebook I have written down all the books I read in 2015 and am on my 142nd book, The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. I just finished the ARC of Elizabeth Brundage’s All Things Cease to Appear, which is so smartly written. I recently read Wallace Stegner’s first novel, Remembering Laughter, and I passed that onto my son for his plane ride home for Thanksgiving. Find the Good by Heather Lende is one I love, and hand-selling it is so fun. And I love dark and twisted psychological thrillers such as In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware, or anything by Chelsea Cain and Camilla Läckberg.

BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?

AP: This is an impossible question! How could I ever choose one? I’d love to drive through Provence with MFK Fisher, hike Wrangel Island with Hampton Sides, retrace the Australian desert with Robin Davidson, walk the trails of Bread Loaf with Robert Frost, or the beaches of Provincetown with Mary Oliver, and so many others.

But I would go back to the 1930s and travel with Ruth Gruber, who wrote I Went to the Soviet Arctic, first published by the Left Book Club in London in 1939 and given to me by Dava Sobel, her niece. Gruber was the first female foreign correspondent for the Herald Tribune to fly through Siberia into the Soviet Arctic. Her account of these travels is absolutely fascinating.