New Hampshire Bookstore 'Third Place' in Primary Race

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The presidential primary votes have been tallied and the winners declared, and now life returns to normal in the Granite State. But in the weeks and months leading up to this week's much-watched primary vote, MainStreet BookEnds of Warner, New Hampshire, played host to events for several of the Democratic hopefuls, and had some, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, visit the store. Since MainStreet opened in 1998, it has been through three presidential campaign cycles. "The first series of candidates we saw started coming through in '99," said store co-owner Jim Mitchell. "In 2004 we had just about everyone on the ticket come through to give their stump speech. This year we did pretty well, too. We had Hillary, Kucinich, and Gravel," he said, adding that the bookstore had also been involved in events for John Edwards and Barack Obama.

The bookstore coordinated with the various campaigns to organize events, sometimes without much advance notice. "For example, with the Hillary Clinton event, in the last week of August, several of members of her campaign came through a week in advance," Mitchell explained. "We scheduled the event for five days later. Just coordinating the basic logistics can be an interesting challenge. We had the Secret Service in here for almost the entire four or five days prior to her arrival."

Even with the short lead-time, Mitchell, who owns the store with his sister, Katharine Nevins, said the event, attended by about 300 to 400 people, went very smoothly. "We thought she'd be here for about 15 minutes, but she stayed over an hour. It really gave folks an opportunity to meet Hillary face to face. That's the uniqueness of the New Hampshire primary system."

Clinton's chief Democratic rival, Barack Obama, didn't make a personal appearance at BookEnds, but his campaign organizers utilized the store for "just about every kind of Obama event you could have," explained Mitchell, pointing to a "Teachers for Obama" rally as an example.

All of the Republican candidates were invited to the bookstore, but none visited. "We anticipated John McCain," said Mitchell, "but the scheduling didn't work out."

With the thousands of people passing through, sales increased, but not significantly, reported Mitchell, adding that most attendees scatter after a candidate leaves. Instead, the store maintains its typical role as a "third place" during the primaries, and serves as a gathering place as much as a business.

MainStreet BookEnds has been recognized for its role as a community center by New Hampshire Magazine, which named it "Best Community Bookstore" in its "Best of NH 2006 Editors Picks."

Mitchell explained that the bookstore, housed in a late-1700 colonial farmhouse and barn, is a lot of things to Warner. "We host about 300 events a year. We're a community center -- open for yoga and piano lessons; we host a spinning group for about a dozen women who bring their equipment and spin wool. A bookstore can be much more than about books. That's what separates us and all independent bookstores from the big box stores."

BookEnds also uses all of its available wall- and table-space to show the work of local artist and artisans. "We sell pottery, woodcraft, woolen products on consignment," Mitchell said.

A general bookstore, BookEnds specializes in children's and YA literature. The store highlights the Book Sense Picks by using shelf-talkers. Mitchell and Nevins recently bumped up their sidelines offerings to include an extensive range of games and toys, which has added a healthy 30-plus percentage increase to the bottom line.

Mitchell, who was formerly a broadcast journalist living in Washington, D.C., had no prior bookselling experience when Nevins encouraged him to make the move to Warner. "She knew I was susceptible to a career change," Mitchell said. "I thought it was an interesting idea and came to visit. She showed me a beautiful old Colonial farmhouse on Main Street that was for sale. Now we're a family business."

Mitchell commented on BookEnds' anniversary coming up next fall. "In October of '08, we'll have completed 10 years. It's remarkable how the time has flown by." But he nixed the idea of a big blowout. "The weekend of our anniversary, we'll have our fall foliage festival. The population grows from 3,000 to 40,000. I think that'll be enough of a party." --Karen Schechner