Face Out: ABA Board Member Chris Morrow on His Life Among Books

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In this installment of our series profiling American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to Chris Morrow, co-owner of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, and Saratoga Springs, New York. In April, Morrow was elected to his first three-year term (2016–2019) on the ABA Board.

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

Chris Morrow: My earliest memories of books are being read to by my parents, which continued even after I learned to read. They would read to my brother and me in the car on road trips. My early books included classics like Encyclopedia Brown, Narnia, and all the Roald Dahl titles. My parents opened the bookstore when I was 10, so at that point I had more options. The magic of books for me back then, much like now, was being immersed in other worlds, experiencing adventures or situations beyond my current physical or mental reach. Books were openings to the larger universe.

BTW: When did you first start working as a bookseller? When did you know that this would become your vocation?

CM: Well, that is a little hard to answer. When I was 11, my parents [Northshire’s founders] were away and I was staying with my uncle, who worked at the bookstore. He had to pull me out of school one day because I was the only one who knew how to change the register tape. Does that count as bookselling? I worked at the store on vacations and summers, sometimes helping on the sales floor, often doing projects for my dad, which ranged from demolition and construction (when we were building the “new” store) to doing spreadsheets on inventory or co-op. Suffice it to say that I had a varied apprenticeship in the book business.

I did not plan on becoming a bookseller after my education. I went into the Peace Corps after college and then, after some wandering, went to graduate school. Over the years, as I came back to Vermont from various places around the world, the appeal of the book business became more enthralling to me. Also, after seeing so much of the planet, I began to appreciate the specialness of Vermont. The combination of Vermont, bookselling, and family brought me back to begin full-time bookselling in 1998.

BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in the industry since you started your career?

CM: Well, the rise of the Internet is certainly the big one. The demise of Borders and the consolidation of publishing have been notable, but nothing has rocked bookselling like online sales of physical books and the advent of digital content. The implications of the online world are just beginning to take hold and there are many challenges ahead for bricks-and-mortar retail in general. The increased difficulty to make a living writing books is something that is important, although the effects are much harder to point to right now.

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

CM: I am still getting up to speed on what the ABA Board has been focused on, but I do think that encouraging, mentoring, educating, and otherwise supporting new entrants into the bookselling community is very important. Our community gets stronger as it gets more diverse in age, experience, gender, ethnicity, race, etc.

With the continued growth of the Internet and people’s shifting buying habits and the constant change that confronts us all like a steady wind, it will be ever more important to evolve our business model with industry partners to keep bricks-and-mortar viable. Changing minimum wage and salary laws, increasing rents, and the anemic economy are all adding pressures to already challenged booksellers. ABA used to have an education session called “The Two Percent Solution,” as in two percent profit is the goal. I think many booksellers are still in the position of aspiring to two percent — this is not healthy for the industry.

I would also like to see a continued emphasis on children’s books. A third of both our stores is devoted to kids, and we have incredible kids’ booksellers. Fostering the love of reading is the best part of what we do and is also good business. Building on what the ABC Children’s Group is already doing would be good.

BTW: Are there any particular local causes or organizations in which you or your store has taken a leadership role? If so, why did you think it was important to do so?

CM: Besides Local First Vermont, we have been passionate advocates for the environment, mostly around energy issues and climate change. We have solar panels on the store and recently installed electric vehicle charging stations in our parking lot. Climate change is the issue of our time. I have kids. Anyone with kids should be freaked out about the future they will inhabit. The bookstore has hosted climate change educational sessions, including Bill McKibben multiple times, and has pushed for action. Lots of work yet to do on this one...

BTW: What are you reading now?

CM: I am in the middle of three books:

  • The Seventh Sense by Joshua Cooper Ramo (Little, Brown)
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)
  • Integral Meditation by Ken Wilber (Shambhala)

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

CM: Great question! My answer to this would change with the seasons, but today I would say Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Barcelona.