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Browsing Is Alive and Well Inside Middlebury's Enormous Monroe Street Books


Published February 2, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Timm Williams at Monroe Street Books - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Timm Williams at Monroe Street Books

A common refrain from first-time customers of Middlebury's Monroe Street Books is "I should have stopped by years ago," according to employee Timm Williams. The used book emporium is the definition of a hidden gem, albeit one hidden in plain sight.

The unassuming, barn-red warehouse sits on Route 7 about two miles north of Middlebury. With no foot traffic on the rural stretch of highway and motorists whipping past at 50 mph or more, it's easy to miss — especially for southbound travelers. A row of trees on the north side of the property obscures the store from view until it's nearly too late to stop.

Granted, used bookstores are nothing rare in the Green Mountains. The Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association, of which Monroe Street Books is a member, lists nearly 25 brick-and-mortar shops all over the state. With 100,000 volumes on the shelves, however, organized by an intricate logic, the Middlebury store offers avid readers the pleasure of seemingly endless browsing.

Towering, 12-foot bookcases fill most of the cavernous space. The upper shelves are accessible only by self-serve ladders. Nearly floor-to-ceiling shelves likewise cover three of the perimeter walls.

Scattered around the shop are other receptacles chock-full of books — rolling carts, milk crates, steamer trunks. The store's concrete floor, exposed ductwork and strips of suspended fluorescent lights make it feel a bit like Belle's library from Disney's Beauty and the Beast crossed with a fallout shelter.

"The building is large enough that you can really lose the people you came with, the way you'd lose a toddler in a supermarket," Dwight Garner wrote by email. A Middlebury College alumnus and contributor to early Burlington alt-weekly the Vanguard Press, Garner is now a book critic at the New York Times. A longtime fan of the shop, he called it "one of America's great used bookstores, full stop."

Besides those 100,000 books on the shelves, Monroe Street Books has an additional 50,000 titles available only online. On a recent Monday morning, 18-year employee Williams sat ensconced among scores of vintage children's books and classical music CDs that are kept just off the sales floor.

The books sold online are generally the more fragile ones, he explained: "If they're in the store, and they're handled over and over, then the condition depreciates."

Williams sports multiple silver rings, a beaded necklace and a studded bracelet; his eyes are lively and inquisitive. A book collector and seller for decades, he was a longtime customer of the store at its original location on Middlebury's Monroe Street, which opened in 1992. Now he works in the shop daily.

The original space was small, Williams said. The store's owners, Dick and Flanzy Chodkowski, moved to the new location in 2004 because their stock outgrew the old shop's capacity.

In 2018, Dick Chodkowski told the Addison County Independent that the couple opened the original location behind their home after moving to Vermont from Los Angeles. Coming from a career in advertising, Chodkowski had amassed a collection of books on graphic art and photography.

By the time of the Addy Indy article, mail orders comprised nearly half of the store's annual sales, according to Chodkowski. In a recent call, he said those figures haven't changed much. During the summer tourist season, he noted, when his store is a prime destination for out-of-state visitors, in-store sales tend to increase.

As the store acquires new titles through estate sales, donations and other methods, sections expand and contract, Williams said. If he discovers a surge in similarly themed titles within a genre or subgenre, he might create a new section to hold the overflow.

More is always better, he continued, joking that empty shelf space is something "you just can't have."

Monroe Street Books - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Monroe Street Books

Despite its massive stock and daunting space, Monroe Street Books "is actually meticulously organized," Chris Bohjalian wrote by email to Seven Days. The best-selling author, who lives in Addison County, is a regular at the shop.

He said his recent purchases at Monroe Street Books include vintage novels, nonfiction books and magazines about safaris, such as Robert Ruark's 1960s titles Uhuru and Use Enough Gun: On Hunting Big Game. The books helped Bohjalian research his upcoming novel The Lioness, out on May 10.

Some of the bookstore's categories are ultra-specific. Rows of books covering practically every country and region take up considerable space. Within "mystery," you'll find "historical mystery." A section devoted to U.S. presidents features dozens of books on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Vintage science fiction paperbacks are prominently displayed on a spinner rack and pinned up in plastic sleeves on the ends of aisles.

There's a sly wit to the way certain books are organized. A section on sea disasters is adjacent to one about pirates. Within "games," a small section devoted to "mind games" sits on the highest shelf. It's tantalizingly out of reach without assistance from one of the many ladders scattered around the store.

The shop also sells posters and vinyl LPs. On my way out, I spotted and snagged a copy of Bronski Beat's Truthdare Doubledare, a serendipitous find given that the British synth-pop band's cofounder, Steve Bronski, died on December 7, 2021.

Keeping track of what's on the shelves is a tricky and dynamic process, Williams said. While the online stock is electronically cataloged, the in-store merchandise is not. If a customer asks for a specific title, one of the shop's four employees must scour the shelves to find it.

"If you have questions, just ask anyone who works there. They know the place," Bohjalian wrote. "I have no idea how, but they do."

Williams said the store is currently not acquiring new titles, except through donations. (During my visit, a man stopped by with a large box practically overflowing with children's picture books.) By late spring or summer, though, the staff will need to start buying again to replenish the shelves.

No magic formula explains how they choose what to buy, Williams said. But pricing is easy enough to determine. Chodkowski said he uses the aggregate website AddAll to quickly compare prices across all the major online booksellers. Though the pandemic has somewhat reduced in-store shopping, "It's kind of balanced by people reading more during this period," he said.

The store can never have too many copies of perennial classics such as Moby-Dick and Slaughterhouse-Five. But obscure titles can be equally attractive. Off the cuff, Williams noted odd finds such as the collected works of minor Polish poets and vintage pamphlets about how screw threads are created.

"We get people in here who have very specific tastes," he said.

Some customers come looking for works from individual publishers such as Germany's Taschen, known for producing big art books. Bohjalian said that his wife, artist and photographer Victoria Blewer, has been dabbling in experimental collage art. Monroe Street Books is her go-to for retro and vintage imagery.

"Where else can you find the Seventeen magazine girls' guide to etiquette from 1971 or a Boy Scout handbook from 1950?" Bohjalian wrote.

Monroe Street Books is a true digger's paradise. In a world moving increasingly toward the digital, the shop keeps things rooted in the physical.

"We still have a totemic connection to books made of paper," Bohjalian wrote. "Just surrender. Fall into the rabbit hole and be happy."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Page Turner"