For inveterate browsers, it's the end of an era. Since 1996, all they had to do was tromp down a flight of stairs in Richardson Place, at the top of Burlington's Church Street, to find a huge array of used and antiquarian books basking in 4000 well-lit square feet.
Now North Country Books, which opened on Cherry Street 14 years ago, is closing its real doors and taking all its operations into the virtual world, where owner Mark Ciufo says he's been doing brisk business for years. He's already selling books at a discount, and plans to stay open for at least another month, he says.
Ciufo, 48, is unusual among used-book sellers in that he acquires all his inventory locally, rather than from publishers looking to unload their overstock. He says he's handed out more than half a million dollars to individual sellers over the years. But, while Vermonters provided the books, about half the store's income came from "the Internet and tourists," Ciufo says. Passersby didn't always understand his pricing, he explains, which reflected the volumes' online market value. Collectors understand that "there's a value and aesthetic to used books."
After a disastrous December for retail, "I'm simply overgrown in the space and quite burnt out," Ciufo says. He cites the presence of Borders and the relocation of Banana Republic - which used to draw customers into Richardson Place - as reasons for North Country's declining sales over the past few years. Then there was the rise of the online marketplace, both a new revenue source and a curse. "The irony of the Internet is, it's forcing people like me to close," Ciufo says. "The logic of making more money is to cut the overhead and work independently. It's frustrating."
Ciufo doesn't rule out the possibility of reopening a bricks-and-mortar store someday. But for now, he plans to put the books in storage and work out of his home, aside from appearances at local book fairs. "And I'm gonna read," he says. "I haven't had a chance to read."