- Sarah Priestap
- Sam Kaas and Emma Nichols
On November 3, Sam Kaas and Emma Nichols were visiting Vermont for the very first time. They were following up on an independent bookstore recently listed for sale. While the couple was meeting with Penny McConnel and Liza Bernard, the founders and owners of Norwich Bookstore, the presidential election was called in favor of Joe Biden. It was an auspicious moment for change.
Kaas and Nichols have spent their entire adult lives in the bookselling industry, which, given their ages of 29 and 30, means about a decade apiece. They met at a national booksellers' conference. At the time, Nichols was living and working in Jersey City, N.J., Kaas was in Seattle, Wash. Soon after, Nichols relocated to the West Coast, but their relationship operated under the assumption that, one day, the two of them would return east to be closer to Nichols' family.
Nichols was a manager and buyer at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company, and Kaas was the author events manager at Third Place Books when they came across the sales listing for the Norwich store. They weren't the only ones intrigued by the cozy shop in bucolic New England; McConnel and Bernard received more than 100 inquiries.
Seven Days caught up with Kaas and Nichols two weeks into their tenure running the Norwich Bookstore. Sitting at a picnic table on the sun-drenched green behind the bookstore, nestled between the town post office and Blue Sparrow Kitchen, Kaas said he wasn't surprised by the level of interest in the business: "Find me a more romantic bookstore setting than this!"
Norwich Bookstore isn't the only fixture of Vermont's thriving indie bookstore scene to change hands in 2021. As Publishers Weekly reported in April, the 10,000-square-foot Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, owned for the past 45 years by the Morrow family, was recently sold along with its Saratoga, N.Y. sister store to Manchester locals Clark and Lu French.
When McConnel and Bernard were seeking new owners for their store before embarking on well-earned retirements, Kaas' and Nichols' backgrounds helped them stand out from the crowd.
For one, they have actual bookselling experience, not just idyllic notions of rural living among dusty paperbacks. For another, there are two of them. McConnel and Bernard know how labor-intensive running a bookstore can be — they've done it for 27 years. A partner is very helpful in sharing the load.
Equally important, Kaas and Nichols are young and digitally savvy. They're adept at maintaining the kind of online presence that proved pivotal for independent bookstores during the pandemic and will remain so moving forward.
In an email to Seven Days, McConnel and Bernard affirmed their faith in the new owners. "We are working closely with them on the transition and are confident the bookstore — and perhaps more importantly our community of readers and writers — will be in good hands," they wrote. "We have truly enjoyed our decades at the bookstore and ending this chapter is bittersweet, but it is time for new stewards to develop the story we began in 1994."
Stewardship is a key theme in how Kaas imagines the couple's new role as store owners. "[McConnel and Bernard] have created an incredible community hub in the Norwich Bookstore, and we see ourselves as stewards of that," he wrote in an email. "We'll be finding ways to grow and improve upon the things the store already does so well — connections with the greater Upper Valley community, personalized recommendations from our booksellers, author events, and more."
Right now, Kaas and Nichols are busy settling in and doing what brick-and-mortar businesses all over are — welcoming back their customers. For the new owners, this entails getting to know a lot of unfamiliar faces; for the customers, Norwich Bookstore remains a familiar setting for a favorite pastime: browsing and buying.
But the shoppers are adjusting, too, or at least preparing to. One bustling Saturday afternoon, a regular customer, fresh out of pandemic hibernation, expressed to a longtime employee that she'd miss the store's generous rewards program. (The employee assured her it's staying.) Next, she bemoaned the inevitable changes in staff. (There won't be any.) Well, she wasn't sure what she would do when the store closed down to remodel. (Also not happening.)
"We want to continue to be a welcoming place to the customers who have been shopping with us since 1994," Kaas emphasized in his email, "and to people walking through our door for the first time."
Some customers will need reassurance that things won't change too much too fast, but Kaas and Nichols are confident they have what it takes to win over their patrons. The surest way to a reader's heart is a good recommendation, and no online algorithm can replace the instincts of a knowledgeable bookseller. The "Staff Picks" are stocked, and Kaas and Nichols are ready to elevate the books they love most.
Nichols is especially keen on a novel coming out on July 13. Hugo Award winner Becky Chambers' A Psalm for the Wild-Built imagines a future in which humans have been abandoned by the sentient robots who once served them. Nichols described it as "a slim novel that encourages readers to sit down with a hot cup of tea and eschew productivity. To me," she wrote in an email, "it reads like the sci-fi companion to Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing [published in 2019]; both raise the question, productivity to what end?"
As we emerge from this pandemic — some having left careers, others beginning new ones — there is perhaps no more pressing question than to what purpose we toil. McConnel and Bernard have decided on one answer; Kaas and Nichols have landed on another. One picks up where the other left off. And we turn the page.