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A Storied Life: Plainfield's Country Bookshop Nears the Half-Century Mark


Published May 24, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Bookshelves at the Country Bookshop - SALLY POLLAK
  • Sally Pollak
  • Bookshelves at the Country Bookshop

Ben Koenig was a conscientious objector fulfilling his public service duty at a children's hospital in Westchester County, N.Y., when he enrolled in Goddard College's adult degree program. It was the late 1960s, and times were good at Goddard. Folks called the low-residency program in Plainfield the "adultery program," Koenig recalled.

"It was a friendly place," he said.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Koenig had never been to Vermont before his student days at Goddard. He became enamored of the state on his trips to Plainfield.

"The names of the towns — Springfield, Brattleboro — were so poetic," he said. "And the place was so beautiful." With each on-campus residency, it was harder for Koenig to go back to the Bronx.

"I've been here ever since," he said.

Koenig, 81, is the owner of the Country Bookshop, which has been in central Vermont almost as long as he has. Nearing its 50th year, the shop holds 70,000 used and rare books in a big white house in the center of Plainfield, across from a little park overlooking the Winooski River. Its side porch, with a shelf of free books, serves as the entrance. A sign in front, partially obscured by tree branches, lists the offerings within: Old Books; Used Books; Bought & Sold; Old Paper & Post Cards; Copies & FAX.

  • Sally Pollak
  • Ben Koenig

Koenig also can be found within: He lives above the bookshop. For a while, his kids lived there, too; now their rooms are filled with books. Koenig has amassed an impressive collection, in depth and variety, as well as heft.

"I live in a warehouse," he said. Koenig was only half kidding when he said it's a wonder that the late 19th-century house hasn't collapsed under the weight of the books. (Or maybe they're holding it up.)

Koenig started the business in 1974 in a trailer in Moretown, where he lived after his 1970 Goddard graduation. A folk musician, he had studied coal-mining songs and music education at Goddard. In Moretown, he worked as an administrator in an educational training and outreach program. In his spare time, he started traveling to area auctions and estate sales, where books were among the items for sale. One day Koenig saw an ad in a journal: "Become A Book Scout: Send $1 For Details."

Koenig sent his $1 to a bookseller in California. In return, he received a booklet advising him to subscribe to AB Bookman's Weekly, a trade publication for rare books. It listed pages and pages of titles that people were seeking. Koenig went on the hunt in rural Vermont for these books — and others. In search of additional volumes, he put out his own advertisement, "Ben Buys Books," in the local newspaper, the Washington World.

As he drove the back roads to estate sales, Koenig thought to himself: "Why am I doing this?" He found the answer in old farmhouses and barns.

"You'd wind up with great books," he said. "You'd get a box of books for a quarter at estate sales."

And so the Country Bookshop took shape as a side gig in a trailer and evolved over the years. Koenig moved back to Plainfield in 1976 and brought the store with him. The business occupied two locations — including a barn next to its current spot — before settling in the house on Mill Street almost 35 years ago.

"It's not like selling groceries," Koenig said of being a bookseller. "If you run out of cans of peas, you call someone up and they deliver cans of peas for you to sell. There's no distributor. It's you."

The Country Bookstore is stocked with general-interest volumes arranged by topic and organized alphabetically by author. Categories include landscaping, cooking, poetry, folklore, folk music, history, children's books, bells, evolution and astronomy.

An aisle of books at the Country Bookshop - SALLY POLLAK
  • Sally Pollak
  • An aisle of books at the Country Bookshop

Ninety-five cent mysteries crammed on shelves turn over quickly, as mystery lovers plow through one book and come back for another. Vermont-centric books range from Vermont in the Civil War, an 1886 volume by Burlingtonian and Medal of Honor recipient G.G. Benedict, to Walking to Gatlinburg, the 2010 Civil War novel by Howard Frank Mosher. One bookcase holds Complete Poems of Robert Frost, a two-volume set signed by the poet and published in 1950 by the Limited Editions Club; it's priced at $1,500.

A book Koenig can't keep in stock is The Apples of New York; the early 20th-century title would sell fast for $150 or $200 if he acquired it. Along with its companion volumes, including The Cherries of New York and The Plums of New York, the government-published reference books are "one of the best uses of tax money," Koenig said.

A spare piece of floor is stacked with books by Charles Dickens, one of several spots in the shop where you'll find the British writer's novels. "Dickens is everywhere," Koenig said. "Dickens people still read and buy his books. Nobody walks in here and says, 'Do you have any Thackeray?'"

Plainfield resident Anji Domino speaks fondly of the store, where she and her now-grown children have found "funky old jazz tapes" and snagged beloved books.

"I have purchased many a book there over the years and spent many a quiet moment in those creaky aisles looking at all those treasures," said Domino, a cashier at the Plainfield Co-op.

For many years, the bookstore was open seven days a week. In part, this was to accommodate people waiting to eat at River Run, when the popular restaurant was in the small clapboard building across the street. They'd wander into the bookstore before their meal. For about a decade in the 1990s, Koenig was a weekly drive-time guest on the WCVT radio station, talking about books. He sometimes reported from an out-of-state book fair, where he was a vendor.

He was attending a book fair in New York City's Greenwich Village in March 2020 when COVID-19 emerged. Two booksellers died after that fair, Koenig said. "I was lucky to escape," he added.

Back in Vermont, as the pandemic shut down commerce, Koenig closed his shop, let his employees go and conducted a little business online. His workers had made valuable contributions to the business, Koenig said, including organizing books and placing them on shelves — tasks that he dislikes.

"I like to buy books," he said. "I like people. I like to talk to people. I don't like alphabetizing."

These days, the Country Bookshop is open by appointment. People who call for a visit generally want to buy a book, making the arrangement a favorable one.

"I'll never get rich in this business," Koenig said. "But I eat every day."

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