BENNINGTON >> The Bennington Bookshop has served the town since 1928, and new owners Phil Lewis and Linda Foulsham are working to steer it into the future — starting with their first major event on Saturday, May 2, Independent Book Store Day, which will also mark their second month anniversary of taking ownership of the store.
Lewis, an Australian, and his wife, Foulsham, were living in Boone, N.C., when they decided to pursue a dream of owning a bookstore.
"I have always loved bookstores and libraries," Foulsham said. "Reading has been my gateway to the world — as a child, books fed my curiosity and exposed me to places and people that were foreign to me. They have a common thread of bringing like-minded people together. A bookstore is a gathering place and plays an important role in a community."
Foulsham had worked in four different bookstores over the years, two in Boston and two in Australia, and they began by looking around their area for a place to open a new store, but they found the search frustrating and began to widen their scope.
"The Bennington Book Shop was advertised for sale, so we went along and visited, and spoke to Rick and Ellen Havlak, the previous owners, and we were very interested," Lewis said. "We moved forward with it."
To celebrate their move and new adventure, on Independent Book Store Day they will hold readings throughout the day, including a storytime for kids by the store's longtime employee Chris Gingo and readings by local authors Shawn McKenzie, Joe Hall, Steve Haggerty and John Goodrich — Goodrich also works at the store. The day will end with a wine and cheese gathering.
As Foulsham and Lewis prepare for this upcoming day, they have thought about what they want the bookstore to be within the community. They've become more active on the store's already existing Facebook page, Lewis said, and have added the ability to order books online through their website. They've also made some adjustments to the books they stock, adding significantly to the poetry section and widening the scope of the religious section, and they say both have already proven popular.
The shop has also begun publishing a newsletter each month that includes book reviews from local students, which Lewis says is a great resource for people seeking out books for younger readers. The reviews also run on the store's website.
Their biggest hope, though, is to introduce a new ambiance to the shop with the smell of coffee brewing.
"We'd like to introduce coffee to the book shop, but at the moment we're just catching up with everything, because it's all new and exciting and a little bit overwhelming," Lewis said. "But we hope to create a coffee lounge atmosphere in the book shop in the future."
They approach a book shop as a multi-purpose space, he said, not just a business, but something much more personal.
"It's about making the bookstore a community gathering spot, so people come in for books, but they also come in for the atmosphere," he said. "They come in because it's a comfortable place to be, and we make them feel at home."
"Brick and mortar indie bookstores are vital to the health of a community," Foulsham said. "They sell books but also provide a place for folks to gather, to browse and to discover new authors. They bring authors to the community and provide opportunities for conversation and inquiry. Bookstores offer a venue to people and families to make connections and to feel connected."
He and his wife envision future readings and events, including live music.
Opening a bookstore isn't as easy as it used to be, he said, given the landscape of the market and the challenges all kinds of store owners face in getting people through their doors. Lewis and Foulsham have actively researched and prepared, including consulting with the bookseller advisory group Paz and Associates.
"We attended a nearly two week-long seminar with them nearly two years ago," Lewis said. "They advocate for owners of independent book stores and provide advice and professional development for them. So, in going into the purchase of the book store, we were in contact with Paz and Associates, and they gave us lots of advice and suggestions and helped us navigate the process, because it is rather intricate."
And they've also appreciated the support of the two communities they've now entered, he said — the immediate one of Bennington, and the wider one of bookselling. After the first week of ownership, they were treated to a reception to celebrate, organized by the Havlaks, with greetings and offers to help from other bookstores around the area.
It's the sort of response that Lewis and Foulsham had hoped for, one indicative of a business community that is less about profit and more about passion.
"For most independent bookstore owners, it is not a great money earner, but it is a passion, it is a way of life, and it's something we believe in," Lewis said.
It is probably early in the game for them to give advice to other people seeking to own an independent bookstore, he said, but he and his wife did learn one lesson from their experience that they'd like to pass on, applicable to almost any goal in life.
"Don't give up on the dream," he said. "Linda and I looked for two years in the community in which we lived in North Carolina for a suitable location. It was very frustrating, but we didn't give up on our dream and we found Bennington is the ideal size town for us. It's a community-oriented town, which is very important to us. The arts scene is very vibrant. We were looking for all those things. The basic thing is, don't give up — your dream will be out there."
If you go ...
What: Independent Book Store Day
When: 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, May 2
Where: Bennington Bookshop, 467 Main Street, Bennington
Info: 802-442-5059, benningtonbookshop.com