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Annie Philbrick, Bookstore Owner - Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Annie Philbrick, Bookstore Owner - Part 2

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 second part of Annie's REAL TALK Publishing interview, where she talks about some of her favorite Bank Square Books author events and how Mystic has influenced the store. initial challenges of buying the store. If you missed Part 1, check it out here, and make sure to come back next Wednesday, July 23rd for Part 3!

TRC: How do you decide which authors to feature at events?

AP:  We say yes to just about any publicity request for an author. And working with the publicist, we try to figure out what works. Should it be an author luncheon? What about an Oyster Club dinner? Is it an evening thing? Evening things in Mystic are a little tricky sometimes. In the summer, on Friday and Saturday night, people are typically too busy going out for dinner or something. Or during the week, sometimes people come home and just don’t come back downtown again.

For the dinners at Oyster Club, I try to work with the owner and the chef to see if the book appeals to them. Is there some way we can create a menu out of that book? The cookbooks work really well. We’ve done a lot of events with Colman Andrews, who has written cookbooks, was one of the founders of Saveur magazine, and now runs a website in New York called The Daily Meal. Some fiction works. We did SALVAGE THE BONES and it was a fabulous dinner. We did Bob Spitz’s book about Julia Child [DEARIE: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child], and the chef created the first meal that Julia Child ever had in Paris. We try hard to partner with a lot of other entities like public libraries. We do a lot with the libraries because that partnership brings more people from their group.

TRC: How do you partner?

AP: For example, we’re working on having an event with Wally Lamb in August for the release of his paperback, WE ARE WATER. And I was trying to think about where to do it, so I reached out to the director of the Groton Public Library, who we do a lot with, and they were thrilled. I suggested that we hold the event at the Mystic Arts Center, which is pretty much right next door to the bookstore. It holds about 125 people, and they work really well with us. They let us use the place for free, and then for some events like that, we will donate a portion of the sales back to the library. Or for Wally Lamb, we might donate it to York Correctional Institution, which is a women’s prison where he’s taught writing classes before. So that kind of partnership helps us “give back” to the community. There’s another place in Stonington called the La Grua Center, and we will do events there and get their crowd as well. We’ll sell the books and donate a certain part of the proceeds back to them.

TRC: How did you first come up with ideas to do author lunches and dinners, and creative event ideas in general?

AP: Well, the first lunch we did was with Elin Hilderbrand. It was summer, and I remember standing around as we were trying to figure out “how can we make these events more fun than just an author coming and reading or talking about their book?” Because it was Elin [a well-known women’s fiction novelist], we said, “Why don’t we have a ladies luncheon in the middle of July where the purchase of the book is the ticket to the lunch?” We called it Ladies Who Lunch at Bank Square Books, or Literary Lunch, or something like that. They became very successful, and we thought, “You know, this isn’t really fair that we just single this out to women.” So we just changed it into an author luncheon at Bank Square Books.  And everybody was really excited about that.

We had Conor Grennan --- an author who wrote a book called LITTLE PRINCES about the stolen children in Nepal --- and the staff said, “Oh, great! We can have stir fry and Nepalese food.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no. This is too complicated!” So we partner with a local deli right down the street, and we have a green salad and a couple of side salads, dessert, wine and seltzer. People love it!

Oyster Club opened up a couple of years ago, and it’s a great farm-to-table restaurant that seats 45 people, and I just had this idea of having an author dinner there. I went down and talked to the owner Dan, and he said, “Yeah, that sounds great!” So SALVAGE THE BONES was the first one, and we probably do 4-6 a year. They don’t like to do them in the summer --- they’d rather do them in the fall and the winter.  So sometimes it’s just stretching your mind to think about different ways to do a successful event.

One of the best events we did was for a book called THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by a woman named M.L. Stedman, who’s from England. We had her coming and I’m thinking, “So what do we do that is fun? It’s August.” I actually had an idea in the shower one day that was, “Oh, let’s go to a lighthouse” because Mystic/Stonington/New London have all these lighthouses out in the middle of the water.

One thing led to another, and I thought about how the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus has a program in marine sciences called Project O, where they have a research vessel that goes out all over in the sound. So I called them and asked, “What do you think about doing an author event where we take the boat to the New London lighthouse and then get off and go into the lighthouse?” At first there was this long silence, and I was like, “Do you think I’m crazy? Or you don’t want to do this?” and she said, “No! I think it’s great!” So we took 40-50 people out to the lighthouse with the author. She read and talked about her book on the steps of the lighthouse. Then we all went to the lighthouse for half an hour, then we got back on the boat and had food and wine, and went back to shore. It was fabulous and took place from 5-8pm. It was one of those hot, beautiful, calm summer evenings, which was perfect. Often it’s just being creative and thinking outside the box.

TRC: How does being based in Mystic influence the books that you sell and the merchandise you sell, and the authors you feature? Does the location have an influence on the store itself?

AP: Yes! I do all the adult buying, and then we have a gift buyer and a kids’ buyer. And we all have to buy for our local, literary, stable year-round customers and for tourist season (June through December). There’s a little bit of a lag in the fall, and Christmas is all of the above, but starting at about Mother’s Day/Memorial Day, the weekends are packed for us.

Starting in late May is a Mystic table with Mystic hats and Bank Square Books hats. People come in and they want a magnet or a sticker, so we have a magnet that someone made us of a picture of the bookstore. We have water bottles. We have all that branded stuff. That’s what all those people who are traveling --- the tourists --- want.

We expanded last October and doubled our retail space, and part of the reason behind that is that two really nice, but very different, gift stores in Mystic closed for a variety of reasons, so we picked up a lot of that business. So it’s tricky. We like to have a little bit for everybody, so we’re always trying to play with that balance.

TRC: What would you say is the role of an independent bookstore in a community?

AP: The key word in that is community. I think the role is to provide a cultural literary interaction with our customers. And with people who may not know they’re our customers, but who we’d like to develop into customers, especially the kids who come into our store. We just want to make them feel welcome. My cocker spaniel comes into the store and just rolls all over the floor with the kids.

For Mystic, it’s really helping keep that town vibrant and alive. I think reading is just vitally important, and we live in such a digital age --- we’re on computers, laptops and iPhones all the time. But to just sit back and be able to put a book into somebody’s hand is such a special thing because you’re really giving part of yourself to them by recommending a book.

It’s interesting --- at an editor event this morning, we talked about a book called CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It by Ian Leslie, and it basically says that because of the Internet,  people are less curious about things. It’s just keeping that cultural literacy in the world, and really putting it in people’s hands.

TRC: I know that Bank Square Books’ motto is “locally owned and fiercely independent.” How did you come up with that?

AP: We made it up! There’s the whole movement about localism --- shop locally, buy locally, and even Small Business Saturday, which American Express runs after Thanksgiving (if you spend $100, $68 stays within your community). It’s really pushing that message out there; we are local. We are not Amazon, we are not Barnes & Noble --- we are not these big box stores. The best thing we give, we hope, is our customer service. We are people to talk to. We are people who have read those books. So that’s a lot of what it was.

Kids come in and go “is this a library? Do we have to be quiet?” “No, it’s a bookstore!  You can do whatever!”

And “we are our own minds.” We are an independent bookstore; we try our best to do what we do, which is hand-selling the books. I remember talking to publishers once, and saying “you know, we’re all in the same business. We’re all trying to sell all the books in different modes.” But I think it’s been really important to us to stress “shopping local, shopping in your town, supporting us is going to keep us there.” You know, Harvard Bookstore has a motto, “Find it here, buy it here, keep us here,” as opposed to just going and pushing a button online. Show your kids that whole experience of going to a bookstore. Kids come in and go “is this a library? Do we have to be quiet?” “No, it’s a bookstore!  You can do whatever!” It’s just a motto we came up with that we felt really strongly about.

TRC: You read so many books. How do you remember them all and know what to recommend?

AP:  As I mentioned, I read fast and I read a lot. In an ideal world, I will try to write something on Edelweiss or to the Editor, or somewhere, very shortly after I finish that book, so I don’t forget. And sometimes if I don’t do that --- if I go back and pick up the book and read a couple of pages, I’ll remember what it was. I also use those shelves on Edelweiss, and I can go back through what I’ve finished reading to help me remember. And I often do that for the Indie Next list --- I sort them by month on Edelweiss, and then figure out what it is that I’ve read and that I want to recommend.

I also write short book reviews for Grace ---  a women’s magazine that comes out four times a year in our local paper --- which I keep in my email. And the woman who writes about books for The Boston Globe --- Jane Gardner --- occasionally asks me what books I’ve read that may not be on her radar. So sometimes I send her those reviews.