Hardwick is a long way from the center of the universe. In fact, it's remarkable that there's a bookstore at all in the hardscrabble Northeast Kingdom town of 3,174 residents, where the configuration of storefronts seems to change about every six months.
But Linda Ramsdell runs her aptly titled "Galaxy Bookstore" with a much bigger picture in mind. For 15 years, she's nurtured the literary outlet, growing it from a single shelf of books in a yard-and-gift shop to a fully fledged bookstore jam-packed with hundreds of titles in the old Merchants Bank building.
"It's an absolute miracle that she's been able to sustain that store in Hardwick," suggests David Budbill, a local poet who lives nearby in Wolcott. In recognition of Ramsdell's efforts, Vermont authors like Howard Frank Mosher, Jeffrey Lent, Archer Mayor and Reeve Lindbergh happily make the trek to read.
A champion for local literature, Ramsdell is also looking out for authors, readers and book sellers beyond the Green Mountains. Last year she was elected president of the New England Booksellers Association — a trade organization representing more than 400 independent book stores in Connecticut, Maine, Massa-chusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Soon afterwards, she teamed up with University of Vermont librarian Trina Magi to tackle an issue of national importance. The duo collected signatures of independent booksellers and librarians opposed to the Big Brother aspects of Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. Passed shortly after September 11, the legislation gives the government broad authority to search bookstore and library records deemed relevant to an investigation, including the records of individuals not suspected of any crime.
"Vermont is the state that's in the vanguard on this issue, and it's because of the leadership of Linda Ramsdell and other librarians and booksellers in Vermont," says Rusty Drugan, executive director of NEBA.
The grassroots efforts of Ramsdell and Magi attracted the attention of Congress-man Bernie Sanders, who voted against the USA Patriot Act a year and a half ago. With fresh ammo, Sanders recently drafted legislation to repeal what he calls "a crushing attack on basic rights in this country." Last month Ramsdell was invited to the Capitol Hill press conference where the Congressman introduced his Freedom to Read Protection Act, which exempts booksellers and librarians from compliance with Section 215.
Thirty-nine-year-old Ramsdell seems an unlikely crusader for the First Amend-ment. Modest, easy-going and soft-spoken, she's no rabble rouser. It's hard to imagine anything more activist on her bumper than "I'd rather be reading." Or, "The Craftsbury Marathon: Ski it if you can." Ramsdell won the Stowe Derby this year and was a serious competitor in a handful of 50-kilometer cross-country ski races. Last weekend she returned from Greenland, where she placed fifth in the three-day, 160-kilometer, Arctic Circle Race.
When she isn't skiing, Ramsdell is something of a biblioproselytizer. Asking her advice about what to read is like inviting a Jehovah's Witness to explain the name of God. Ramsdell is an unabashed believer in stories, authors and the profound connection between readers and the written word.
Asked what she's reading, she launches into a 10-minute description of Howard Frank Mosher's soon-to-be-released "novel" about the voyages of Lewis and Clark. "It's a laugh-out-loud picturesque adventure," she says, sounding like a blurb from the back of the book, "different from anything he's ever written."
Ramsdell started Galaxy fresh out of Brown University, where she majored in women's studies. "Some people have things planned out in advance. All of a sudden I was out of college and I didn't know what I wanted to do," she recalls. From her childhood home in Craftsbury, she decided to start selling books. She registered the Galaxy name with the state, ordered eight boxes of books and put out a selection of Vermont titles on a shelf in the corner of what was then a shop in the old firehouse in Hardwick. Her enthusiastic ad in the Hardwick Gazette promised, "Over 50 titles available!"
"It was all gut feelings... I didn't know anything about running a business. Buy books and resell them — that was pretty much my business plan."
Six months later, Ramsdell moved her bookshelves into a bonafide storefront on Main Street. Her entire inventory, furniture and cash register all fit in the back of a pickup truck. A few years later she moved to the 1,000-square-foot space next door, and in 1997 she bought the old Merchants Bank building. She moved down the street with the help of more than 50 customers pushing shopping carts.
Today Ramsdell has hundreds of titles available, a mailing list of 800 customers, several part-time employees and a satellite business called Stardust Books. Last year she bought the old library building in Craftsbury and opened a bookstore that is now run by high school students.
"I grew by increments," Ramsdell says. "If someone gave me a million dollars to open the bookstore of my dreams, I'd be terrified. I had $3000 to start with and I just reinvested the inventory."
Keeping an independent bookstore going in any town is a challenge, but Hardwick is particularly small and rural — it's the butt of every "nice tooth" joke in the state. Twenty-seven miles south in Montpelier, Bear Pond Books owner Michael Katzenberg says Ramsdell just has what it takes to make it off the beaten track. For example, she has the names, and literary tastes, of her clients committed to memory. "She's a great bookseller, she really is," says Katzenberg. "She's highly energetic and she's got that passion, a lot of common sense and she's about the friendliest person in the world. Her passion is to get books in the hands of readers and to spread literature."
Judging from the bookstore's success, Ramsdell may have her tiny corner on the market figured out. She won over townspeople long ago when The Galaxy became one of the town's few anchor stores. She's turned the brick monolith on Mill Street into a gracious but welcoming place with marble floors and lacquered wood trim. Ramsdell uses the drive-through teller window for her checkout area, the former bank president's office as her billing sanctum and the old vault as repository for puzzles and games.
The main display area is taken up with tasteful arrangements of the sorts of books you'd expect to find in any Green Mountain bookstore: works about Vermont or by Vermont authors, bestsellers, classics, children's stuff and titles devoted to psychology, adventure, nature and history. But as you walk in the door you can't miss "Linda's favorites," an eclectic, off-beat selection of muck-raking journalism, gut-wrenching adventure, neo-feminist diatribes and historical fiction. Nickeled and Dimed, journalist Barbara Ehrenriech's look at minimum-wage workers, shares a shelf with the Thelma and Louise-inspired The Bad Girls' Guide to the Open Road.
"One of the things that's so interesting about Linda's store is the books that are in there are a reflection of Linda," says Budbill, who tutored Ramsdell for a year after she finished high school. He's been a regular since The Galaxy opened in 1988.
Ramsdell caters to two basic sets of readers: the year-rounders and the summer people. "People are fiercely loyal and supportive and that's the only way local businesses survive," she says. "The summer people are more likely to spend $100 at a time, but what really makes an impact is people coming in and spending $5 or $10. Winter is when people who live around here do the most reading, and the people who live here keep the bookstore alive."
Since she started selling books in Vermont, Ramsdell has lived by the following logic, which she lays out with a laugh: "A bookstore in Hard-wick is not an oxymoron; a profitable bookstore is not an oxymoron; and a profitable bookstore in Hardwick is not an oxymoron." Maybe she should write a book about it.