hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Indie bookstore bucks trend

Northshire plans westward expansion with second store in Saratoga



Contributing writer


The network of metal girders tower over Broadway, wrapped in white layers like a giant birthday gift waiting be unveiled.

When the four-story building inside that wrapping is completed, it will fill a gap on Broadway that’s been there since the last structure at the site was demolished after a fire in 1957. And it will give the city a large new bookstore, something downtown Saratoga Springs has lacked since the Borders bookstore chain pulled out two years ago.

At a time when many independent booksellers are struggling to survive competition from Amazon and the rapid growth of e-readers, Northshire Bookstore of Manchester, Vt., is boldly expanding westward to open its second store here.

Northshire Bookstore Saratoga will occupy the bottom two floors of the new building, which also will house business offices and 14 luxury apartments on its two upper floors.

Chris Morrow, Northshire’s co-owner, said he is optimistic the new store will be ready to open in early July.

“After the Borders store downtown went bust a few years ago, I got many, many requests to open in Saratoga,” Morrow said. “The more I talked to people, the more interested I became. Clearly it’s a literate community and very vibrant. It just seems like a prime location for a good bookstore.”

The new store will have more than 9,000 square feet of floor space and will be able to offer 40,000 to 50,000 books for sale. It will be modeled on, and about the same size as, Northshire’s existing store in Manchester Center, which over nearly four decades has grown into a veritable institution in southern Vermont.

Morrow’s parents founded the family-owned bookstore in 1976. It has evolved from a 1,000-square-foot retail shop in a converted house to become a full-service bookstore and café 10 times the original size. Today, the Manchester store regularly hosts a multitude of in-store literary events including reading groups, workshops and book signings and presentations by local and visiting authors.

Morrow has been involved in the bookstore business since childhood.

“I spent all kinds of time working at the store, and we lived right underneath it,” Morrow said.

“I remember coming up into the store through a trap door, so that was pretty neat for a kid,” he recalled with a laugh.

The new store will use the Vermont store’s model as a starting point and evolve to meet the needs of a new demographic as those needs become evident, Morrow said.

“We’re largely mimicking what we’re doing here and taking some of the obvious differences, such as being in the Adirondacks instead of Vermont and having a more academic setting and an interest in horse racing,” Morrow said. “We’ll make some educated guesses and open the store, then learn what people are interested in.”

For the first couple of months, he said, the store’s event schedule will purposely be kept at a minimum so that the staff can focus on getting the store and its systems up and running properly. But Northshire is working with venues in Saratoga Springs to bring at least one major author to the area in the summer before ramping up to a full slate of in-store programs in September, Morrow said.

Changing marketplace

Expanding a business to a new location can be a risky proposition in any industry, but Northshire’s move seems particularly bold against the backdrop of the other booksellers’ struggles. Nationally, more than 1,000 bookstores closed from 2000 through 2007, leaving about 10,600 remaining retail booksellers in the United States, according to federal statistics.

Since then, the technology of the 21st century has enabled readers to order e-books online with direct delivery to their mobile devices. That, coupled with the ongoing online competition from Amazon, has put new pressures on bricks-and-mortar stores selling actual printed books.

Around the region, independent bookstores have disappeared from the downtowns of Glens Falls, North Adams and Pittsfield in the past two years. When Red Fox Books of Glens Falls announced its plans to close in the summer of 2011, its owners cited a “shocking decline” in sales because of a stagnant economy and the rise of e-books.

Even the chain superstores that arose in the 1990s have taken a big hit in recent years. Borders, long the nemesis of independent bookstores, closed its Saratoga Springs location in April 2011, around the time it applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The chain, which had operated nearly 700 stores at the beginning of 2010, wound up liquidating all of them by the end of 2011.

The new Northshire store will still have big-box competition in Saratoga Springs, however, in the form of a Barnes & Noble store just outside the city limits in Wilton. At 21,500 square foot store, that store is more than twice the size of the one Northshire is planning.

But the Barnes & Noble chain has been struggling, in part because of lagging sales of the Nook tablets it developed in hopes of capturing more e-book sales, and Morrow seemed unfazed by the prospect of going head-to-head with the chain.

“Our competition isn’t so much the chains anymore as much as it is online competition,” he said.

The key to survival is providing what readers can’t get online, which is the human factor, Morrow said.

“We offer an excellent selection, an ambience that’s enriching and expert booksellers,” he said. “That combination has withstood the test of time. People like to come in to look at the recommendations, to make a discovery in a physical store. The serendipity of what happens when you walk through a good bookstore is irreplaceable.”

That serendipity cannot be replicated shopping online, nor can the sense of community involvement, he added.

Those factors are key to the survival of other independent bookstores around the region. Besides Northshire, independent booksellers are holding their own in communities from Rutland, Vt., to Hudson, N.Y., and Great Barrington, Mass. In Albany, The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza has survived industry changes for nearly 40 years. And in 2009, Battenkill Books in Cambridge quadrupled in size and moved to a more prominent location on Main Street.

Community support

Morrow said he’s excited to be forging new partnerships with local groups in Saratoga Springs, which is the home of arts organizations that range from Yaddo to Saratoga Reads, Skidmore College and the Saratoga County Arts Center.

While Northshire strives to become involved in its new community, some in Saratoga Springs have already embraced the new bookstore.

Morrow said he enlisted community support for the new venture by using an investment strategy known as CSE -- Community Supported Enterprise – that raises capital from investors who have a financial and emotional stake in the success of a business being located in a community.

“It’s not too far afield with what’s going on with Kickstarter, and the basic premise is that the investment comes from people who are vested in the business for financial and other reasons,” Morrow explained. “I certainly didn’t have enough money to open a second store on my own, and Saratoga was very accommodating. We need to keep our capital local and invest in our communities, and this does it.”

Through the CSE effort, Morrow said he enlisted a group of investors from Saratoga Springs, essentially borrowing funds from them through what he called a convertible debt offering, which he said is not unlike a bank loan that must be repaid over time.

Although he wouldn't discuss specific dollar figures, Morrow said 23 percent of the funds required to open his Saratoga store came from these local investors. Another 23 percent came from a bank, with the bookstore putting up the remainder of the needed funds.

Morrow said he anticipates hiring about 20 full-time and part-time employees for the Saratoga store and plans to begin the interview and hiring process in May.

Northshire’s Manchester store became the first independent bookstore in the country to install an Espresso Book Machine on premises. The print-on-demand machine provides authors with affordable, short-run publication of an entire book, from printing to binding. The machine will remain at the Vermont store, but Morrow said its printing services will be available to customers in Saratoga.

The new building on Broadway, just north of Lillian’s Restaurant, is owned by Bonacio Construction, which bought the vacant lot from the city. The property previously had been used as a parking lot.

The lot once was part of a busy downtown district wiped out by a massive fire in 1957 that destroyed seven buildings and left a police officer dead, six firefighters injured and 25 people displaced from their homes. The fire consumed a huge part of Broadway and included a men’s clothing shop and shoe store, a pharmacy, an appliance store and two department stores that had occupied their respective sites for more than 50 years.

Northshire Bookstore Saratoga and the four-story building that it will occupy will mark the first building on the site since the great fire, and while the community has evolved and grown in the 56 years since, the new structure will add another legacy to the growing region.

“It’s clearly a very vibrant community with a robust downtown and nice architecture,” Morrow said. “It has a very energetic and welcoming feel. That was enticing to me. … We’re really looking forward to it.”