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Bear Pond Ecology

What makes a bookstore more than just a place to buy books?


Published June 23, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Louise Pittman, the librarian behind the wheel of the Adams County bookmobile, was a hippie. So was everyone who had anything to do with books, as far as I could tell growing up in rural Pennsylvania. I was 13 and starved for something I'd been told in no uncertain terms was not good for me. My father was a Red Scare kind of guy and Louise was, well, something else. I suspected that "something" was subversive. In my opinion, the books-and-hippies connection had everything to do with the Question Authority thing I'd been direly warned against.

This is how I was seduced into The Counterculture. It wasn't only the copy of Our Bodies Ourselves Louise put in my hands, or the Joan Baez record she brought along one week. In truth, it was Louise's constant interest in my writing, which she asked for on each visit. She read the poetry I wrote, and she asked my opinion about the books she brought me to read. Forget the communist threat; my notebooks of juvenilia blossomed like summer tiger lilies in Louise's sunshine, shooting hardy roots for the life before me.

Whatever it was Louise put in the water, it stuck. These days I live above a bookstore built on a veritable hippie aquifer: Montpelier's Bear Pond. Owner Michael Katzenberg opened the place in 1973 in its original location at 100 Main Street. He was 26, from Hartsdale, New York, and a graduate of Williams College. Montpelier Mayor Mary Hooper notes, "In the '60s, there wasn't much 'culture' of the sort people associate with Montpelier today. We didn't have NECI, or Onion River Sports, Buch Spieler or The Horn of the Moon Cafe. When those businesses got started there was nothing else remotely like them in town." Bear Pond preceded them all, Hooper says.

Katzenberg recalls that the first book he sold was The Family of Man. That August 3rd sales record reads like a Cultural History syllabus: The Second Sex, I Sing the Body Electric, Sometimes a Great Notion, Open Marriage and Foxfire, as well as multiple volumes of Narnia and Dune, one Rolling Stone magazine and Flat Pick Country Guitar.

Today the store is located across the street, at 77 Main. In summer, the cadre of small businesses around the intersection of State and Main opens up to the season of street life. Like the row of Harleys parked across the street at Charlie-O's, the tables of remainders outside Bear Pond blur the line between indoors and out. The bar patrons idling among the muscular motorcycles uncannily mirror those of us who hum above stacks of Pushcart Prize anthologies and copies of Schopenhauer's Porcupine. Eventually we all work up a thirst and head indoors, out of the strong light.

I'm in Bear Pond three or four times a week, sometimes several times in one day. The boundary between my book-filled apartment and the 750-title poetry section at Bear Pond seems a mere formality; the store is really the terrace entrance of my home. Other people browsing the shelves give the same impression, of being in a place that belongs to them.

You can walk a wall of fiction that runs the length of the 1,400 square foot first floor, or bask in the well-stocked spirituality section. Three tall bookcases feature general nonfiction, and sections of history, psychology, philosophy and arts let you focus on something. Where the walls aren't covered with books, they are a pastiche of aging posters with poems and thought-provoking reading lists, such as the Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best 20th Century Novels.

At Bear Pond, there's a great feeling of an endlessly evolving conversation that's there whenever I need it. When I mention this to Katzenberg, he nods. "The books themselves are like a conversation," he says. "They talk to you, they have their own presence."

But the conversations that take place at Bear Pond aren't just between books and readers. They're also between books and writers -- a surprisingly large number of whom converge in Montpelier, and at Katzenberg's store. "At Bear Pond you are connected to an older way of interacting with a bookstore," says novelist Howard Norman, a Washington, D.C. resident who summers in Calais. "There is a depth, an incredible number of good writers in and around Montpelier, and they gravitate to Bear Pond because the level of engagement with reading among the staff is remarkable."

The dialogues that take place at Bear Pond aren't just literary, but literal. William Corbett, a Writer-in-Residence at MIT, spends summers in Vermont. For 20 years he's been coming into Montpelier every week for the farmer's market and books. "I went to Bear Pond as a reader long before I went as a writer to read my books there," explains the author of Vermont Boston: Poems. "They joke with you, remember you. They do right by you. You know, they treat you the way you'd want to be treated." Corbett calls the feeling between staff and customers at Bear Pond "a kind of chemistry."

"They know you," confirms Ellen Voigt, ex-pat of Virginia since 1969, former Vermont Poet Laureate and a National Book Award finalist. "They get to know what you like and they'll say, 'How about this?'" A poet of physical and textural detail, she is grateful for the calm and welcoming arrangement of books. The way the space is laid out makes a world of difference, Voigt suggests. "You don't come in and get assaulted by the best-seller thing."

Judevine author and frequent NPR guest David Budbill agrees. "There are a jillion Barnes & Nobles around the country; the one in South Burlington doesn't look or feel any different than the one at 81st & Broadway in New York," the Wolcott writer says. It's not about quantities of books, it's about selection," he says.

"You count on them to have things you wouldn't even know existed," notes Norman, whose novels The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist were both National Book Award finalists. Bear Pond also carries his 1997 kids' book, The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese.

The selection at Bear Pond, as at many independent bookstores, represents "the stamp of individuals," as Budbill puts it, rather than corporate buying. An anti-Bush book called The New Pearl Harbor is prominently displayed at the front of the store. Barnes & Noble has it holed up in the history section.

Both Katzenberg and Linda Leehman, the store manager, are quick to turn the tables, pointing out that their inventory really reflects the community. "We couldn't get away with this store anywhere else," Leehman says.

Asked to elaborate, she muses for a bit on Goddard College and the writer's program at Vermont College, both of which attract to the area "scholars who seek a more independent experience. But it is also that tsunami of people who migrated in the '60s. Something like 200,000 people came into Vermont. Most of the big wave had moved on by the '80s. Some people, including me, found what we were really looking for here," Leehman concludes with a smile. "We lingered."

But for all its catering to a quirky crowd, Bear Pond can't do it all. While I'm hanging around one afternoon buying a copy of Voigt's Shadow of Heaven and Jody Gladding's recent chapbook, Artichoke, a customer approaches Katzenberg and asks him for "a hard-cover copy of Ulysses, or Keats." After apologizing and offering to order the books, Katzenberg turns to me and says, "That kills me. I mean, I see this as the kind of place that should have those things, but it is just so impossible to predict. I don't care about the sale. I feel bad about disappointing that guy."

He means it. And when I ask Katzenberg a series of typical business-measurement questions, he smiles sheepishly. "I don't know almost any of those kinds of numbers," he admits. "There's this thing people always ask about linear feet, which I guess is shelf space or something, but we just don't think of the books that way."

What he does think about is the community of Montpelier, especially serious readers and writers. "I love writers," Katzenberg enthuses. "Writers are excited, passionate about what they do. You don't meet an indifferent writer, or if you do, they are not really a writer. They are certainly not getting published."

That's why he goes out of his way to support writers he thinks are important. The store carries a substantial inventory of new or underappreciated writers with print runs of 5000 copies, even though their books are usually not financially viable.

Vermont poet Jody Gladding confirms that Bear Pond is as necessary to writing as it is to reading. An employee there from 1987 to 1994, she calls the store essential. "If I hadn't had that, I don't think I would have had my first book [Stone Crop] published when I did," she claims. "I was constantly around people who loved books, and that was very important... You realize that there are other people who are hungry for books in the same way you are."

This sense of connection gets reinforced through Bear Pond's lively schedule of readings. In addition to events such as the Save the Winooski River and the Poets Against the War readings, the book store sponsors scores of events featuring local authors. "Bear Pond functions as the center of the community," Budbill comments. "It's not just where the books are. It's where literature exceeds the books and becomes part of the community."

It may be that Katzenberg's commitment embodies that same support Louise Pittman offered me at 13. She was someone who encouraged passion instead of ridiculing it. She encouraged it with books that never failed to arrive; encouraged the habit of spending time with myself, of knowing what I thought. This may have been the most subversive thing Louise gave me. And maybe that's what Bear Pond gives central Vermont.

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