Skip to main content

Annie Philbrick, Bookstore Owner - Part 1

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Annie Philbrick, Bookstore Owner - Part 1

When Annie Philbrick was telling the story of Bank Square Books at a panel on store succession, a fellow panelist exclaimed, "To buy a bookstore never having owned one before --- and never having worked in one before! That’s crazy!” Her response? "Yeah!"

Crazy or not, Annie has owned the legendary Mystic, Connecticut bookstore since 2006, and since then has made it even more of a community institution: she's expanded the space, hosted some unforgettable events and made sure her cocker spaniel makes customers feel at home.

Below you can find the first part of Annie's REAL TALK Publishing interview, where she talks about the initial challenges of buying the store, a memorable customer interaction and how she chooses which books to sell! Make sure to check back next Wednesday, July 16th for Part 2! 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 that 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 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.

TRC: How did your community respond to you and your friends buying the store?

AP: When there’s change in a small community, people get a little nervous. We kept the sale very quiet until we actually ironed out all the paperwork because Stuart wanted to do it right --- he didn’t want to tell his employees until the deal was actually inked. So as word got out that we were going to buy it, people said “who are these three women? What are they going to do to the store? Are they going to change it?”And so it’s funny, after about three or four months, somebody walked in and said, “God, you changed things, what did you do?” And all we had done was change some light bulbs!

After about three or four months, somebody walked in and said, “God, you changed things, what did you do?” And all we had done was change some light bulbs!

We purposely didn’t change anything for about a year because we realized that people were really sensitive about this. And also, we had a really steep learning curve. I mean, none of us had been in the book business before. My sales reps were very patient with me. We had an employee who has now been there 18 years, and we had another employee who stayed with us for a couple of years to help us go through that transition.

TRC: What’s it like to own your own business? And how is running a bookstore similar to running another business, and in what ways is it different?

AP: For me, it’s also a lifestyle choice. I didn’t buy it to make a lot of money --- I knew it wasn’t going to make a lot of money. But in owning your own business, you’re in control of your own destiny. Working at UConn was a huge bureaucracy and I had great benefits, but I didn’t fit in to that role.

Owning a business allows you to be as creative as want to be, because you’re not in the confines of somebody else’s structures. You can make decisions. And I really run the business as sort of a team. I call it “the Patagonia method,” which is where everybody knows how to do everything. There’s no real hierarchy. I mean yes, I’m the owner, and running your own business is a lot of work, but the trade-off is that I can decide if I want to take the time to ride my bike to Mystic because it’s summer and the traffic is backed up and I get there 20 minutes later because no one is watching the clock for my arrival. Or I can take the store in a direction that we all want to go, or we can change things.

When I did garden design, I was recommending to somebody what kind of plants to put in their garden. Now I’m recommending books to people all the time. And the great thing about books is that if I recommend something to somebody, and they don’t like it, that’s fine; I didn’t write it. There are all these other books out there too. And it starts as conversation. You’re working with people, you’re working with the public, and for us, we’re really serving our community. We’re a huge anchor store in Mystic. We’ve probably been there the longest of almost all the stores there. And we serve the community, and they sort of take a little ownership of us.

TRC: How many people work at Bank Square Books, and what are the different positions?

AP: I think we have a total of about 12. A couple of those are very part-time. We’re now open 10-8 on Monday through Saturday and 10-5 on Sunday.

So there’s myself --- and I do a little bit of everything, but I’m mostly the adult buyer/the owner and help with events. Then we have a kids’ buyer who is in charge of the kids department. We have a woman who does mostly events, of which we do a lot. Then we have a guy who’s worked there for 18 years who I call our “interior designer” because he’s always tweaking. And he also does returns. He’s always playing with the layout of the store, which is great. Then we have a gift buyer and she has an assistant. And then we have two pretty full-time (25-30 hours a week) booksellers and a couple who are really part-time --- they might work a Sunday or work an evening shift. We’ve found that with the expansion, we now need to have at least three people on. There’s one person on each side and then a floater.

TRC: As you said, you “do a little bit of everything.” But if you were to try to break it down a little bit, what would you say your responsibilities are? What does a general day look like?

AP: The buying is a lot, because it’s one of the two things in a small business we can control (along with payroll). So in the buying seasons, I do pretty much all of the ordering on Edelweiss, which is the industry online ordering system that we use. And it takes me a while to go through that and make sure that I’ve looked at the titles, and that I wasn’t zoning out and going too fast. I never read at the bookstore --- I never have the time. I read in the mornings or at home, or I go to Vermont for a weekend and read.

Managing people is another big thing, like helping the gift buyer and Dan the interior designer figure out where we’re going to put a new line that we have.

And dealing with customers! What’s happened now with the expansion is that we actually have a second floor just for events, and I also have a small office. I never had an office before --- our desks were always on the floor, and I would constantly get interrupted. Now what I love is I can be in the office and do my emails and do my work, so when I come downstairs I’m on the floor interacting with customers and helping them. I love working on a Saturday or a Sunday, because New York [publishers] aren’t open, and so I don’t have to deal with emails or phone calls --- I can just sell books to people.

And a large part of it is working with our events person to sit down and go through the calendar. We do these author luncheons in the store where we bundle the book with the lunch and a ticket. We have to make sure we haven’t overbooked ourselves, and figure out “are we going to get 10 people or 30 people to this lunch?” A couple of times we had 70 people! And trying to juggle those so we’re staffed enough.

It’s not every day, but it’s also dealing with self-published authors who come in and say “I just wrote a book.” We’ve gotten better at it. We take a lot of those on what’s called consignment, meaning we charge a nominal fee, take a few copies and pay the author as we sell them. And if it really starts to sell, we’ll buy it outright. But because it takes real estate in the store, it costs money! We’ve had about 500 of those in the system.

And then my business partner does all the paperwork and the books --- I don’t do any of that. I have told her, “If you go away for three weeks, you have to find a bookkeeper because I can’t do it!” Together, go over the financials once a week just to see where we are and where the inventory is. We’ll look at the different sections for returns, or perhaps someone will come to me and say “I can’t shelve anything more in science --- it’s too full,” because new books have come in so we’ll concentrate on that section.

TRC: One of the first things you talked about was how you spend a lot of time on Edelweiss picking out books.  How do you make those decisions? How do you hear about new books that you think would work for you?

AP: What helps a lot is that every night, we send our book sales to Above the Treeline, which is part of Edelweiss, and we have all of our comp titles on there [comp titles are titles that are comparable to each book, because they are written by the same author, are about the same topic, or are the same price]. I look at comp titles, particularly if it’s a debut.

Also for debuts, I try to read the galleys that the reps give me. What I really love is if an editor sends me a galley or a manuscript. And I’ve been learning this --- I’ve started following editors. There are certain editors who edit books that I really am in love with --- like George Gibson at Bloomsbury --- and sending manuscripts helps them get the early buzz on the book. If something’s sent to me with a note from an editor, I’ll try really hard to read that. I have all of the galleys and they’re all organized in my office by month so at least I know what’s there.  It’s sort of that human connection with either the rep or the editor or publicist saying “can you read this book for us.” And if I don’t like it or it didn’t work for me, I just tell them it didn’t work. And I’m not going to say it’s a terrible book, because it’s not necessarily --- it just didn’t talk to me.

It’s helpful to see what other booksellers are reading or excited about.

They also have shelves on Edelwiess where you can “put” books that you’re “anticipating” “highly anticipating” “currently reading” or “finished reading,” and review. And they have something called Community where you can friend other booksellers and see their shelves and read their reviews. It’s helpful to see what other booksellers are reading or excited about.

TRC: And do you also have reps who come to your store?

AP: Yup! We’re very lucky --- I inherited a lot of them from the previous owner. All of them come to the store except for Perseus, which is a phone rep, but he’s a great phone rep. You’re not buying blind with your reps --- they’re really important because not only do they look at past sales, they know the store. I’m not going to sell an edgy graphic novel from Fantagraphicsnecessarily, but Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn might.

And the reps are great to work with --- they’re enthusiastic, and they love the expansion of the store. They’ll tell me if I bought too heavy on this book or if it’s a review and they’re not sure what kind of publicity it’s going to get.

And some people are concerned that because of Edelweiss, everything being online and few paper catalogs, there’s no role for reps. But I find that the role of the rep is just as important, if not more important, not only for the buying but also for being that connection between us and the industry. So the conversation with the rep has expanded a little bit beyond just buying the book.

TRC: What is your favorite part of your job?

For me to read a book that I just love and then to tell somebody about it...I love that part.

AP:  Reading. And dealing with customers! The independent book world is small in the sense that we’re all pretty much friends. The number of stores is growing, but the community is intimate. I read really fast so I read a ton of books, and that connects me with both the customer and the other booksellers. For me to read a book that I just love and then to tell somebody about it, or to tell the editor that I just read this book --- I love that part.

TRC: What’s the most frustrating part of your job?

AP: Well, like any job where you have employees, managing employees takes a lot of time. And I love all of my employees --- they’re great! We’re like a big family. When you spend eight hours a day with somebody in a small space, it’s trying to make sure everybody’s happy.

Also, I’ve come a long way regarding the author events. I love to do them, but I worry sometimes about who’s going to come. Am I going to have enough people? Is the author going to be happy? Is it going to be a success? The whole store gets involved either emotionally or physically in events, trying to make them the best we can for the authors and the customers. And they usually work. Sometimes even if there are only five people at a lunch, the feedback I get from the author is “that was a great conversation! That was really wonderful.” So I don’t worry about it as much as I used to, I guess, or stress out about it, but I try really hard to make them successful.

TRC: Can you tell me about a particularly memorable customer interaction that you’ve had?

AP: Every Christmas, for at least the last four or five years, the same man comes in. I’m not even sure what his name is, but he comes looking for me and says “I need books for my kids.” And they’re all grown kids, and he always asks me to pick them out, and it’s always been a success. And he always shows up.

This Christmas, he showed up around 7pm and told me that he sold the house he had nearby and now lives in New York and Florida, but that he still comes to Mystic to do his shopping: “I come to you, I go to a jewelry store, and the liquor store.” And I said “well, if you sold your house, where are you staying tonight?”  And he said “I’m not --- I’m driving back to New York. I drove up from New York to do my Christmas shopping at these three stores, and then I’ll drive back to New York. Because I came here to shop with you.” So that really stuck in my mind, that he made that effort.

"Where are you staying tonight?" "I'm not --- I'm driving back to New York. I drove up from New York to do my Christmas shopping at these three stores, and then I’ll drive back to New York. Because I came here to shop with you.”

And there are some other really loyal customers who are aging, like a couple where the husband has dementia, so he doesn’t really remember what he’s read. But he’s incredibly enthusiastic about everything he reads. And if I know they’re in the store I’ll come over and say hi and help them, and they like that. That’s how they feel like they belong to the store. There’s another woman who has the beginning of Macular degeneration, so she can’t read as much. She’s getting older and she has her walker, but she’s a huge literary person. So she comes in and she wants my recommendations, and we spend an hour together going around and picking out the titles. And it’s just that customer for people who care.

There’s another great customer, Tina, who’s a really enthusiastic reader who comes to a lot of the events. She was in the store about a month ago and we were talking, and another customer was looking for fiction recommendations. Since Tina was standing there, she started giving recommendations to the customer. And then another customer attached herself to the conversation. So we were all here giving recommendations, and it was really fun for me that this great customer feels comfortable enough in Bank Square Books to give her own recommendations within the context of the store. And she was like “that’s the best book” and “that’s the best book,” and “you’ve got to buy that book.” That passionate hand-selling is just great.