Under New Owners, Northshire Bookstore's Legacy as 'a Family Kind of Place' Lives On | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Under New Owners, Northshire Bookstore's Legacy as 'a Family Kind of Place' Lives On

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Published December 21, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2022 at 2:00 p.m.


Northshire Bookstore - CHRISTINE GLADE
  • Christine Glade
  • Northshire Bookstore

Walk into Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center and prepare to be overwhelmed in the best possible way. The independent bookstore, a fixture in the center of town for 46 years, is like a sprawling yet cozy farmhouse where you can wander from room to room, alcove to alcove, taking in shelf after rustic wooden shelf of books and toys and work by local artists. The archway made of books that occupies the store's entryway is a signal — like the Harry Potter series' Platform Nine and Three-Quarters — that you're about to leave your daily routine behind.

Ashley Ihasz-Austin, one of Northshire's owners, puts it this way: "When you find the stories that move you, it unlocks a completely different kind of world."

The Northshire bookstores — there's a second location in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — are led by Ihasz-Austin and her sisters, Cathleen Ihasz and Nicole Ihasz, who grew up on a farm in Danby, just north of Manchester Center. They are new to the job, having taken ownership in September, but they are not new to the place itself.

As kids, the sisters would go with their parents to the Manchester Center store, they recalled, where Nicole headed to the sci-fi and fantasy section and books by R.L. Stine, Ashley to the music section, and Cathleen to "lit fic."

According to Nicole, their family's history with Northshire is not unique. "There are people who've come here since they were kids and now are bringing their kids or even their grandchildren," she said. "It's a family kind of place."

That was the idea back in 1976, when Ed and Barbara Morrow opened Northshire Bookstore in a small building on Main Street. A decade later, they moved to larger digs across the street — a former stagecoach inn and restaurant. Son Chris Morrow joined the business and added space, more books, a café and the second location in Saratoga Springs. The two stores now employ between 50 and 60 people.

In 2021, ready to retire and move on to other ventures, the Morrows sold Northshire to Manchester Center residents Clark and Lu French. But Lu's unexpected death in spring 2022 made Clark decide to step back from the business and focus on his family. He turned to the Ihasz sisters, inviting them to become the store's majority owners.

Nicole said, "All three of us had an instant gut reaction: Yes!" It was actually all four of them, she clarified; Scott Austin, Ashley's husband, is Northshire's director of operations.

"It made so much sense on so many levels," Nicole continued. "We would each be able to bring our respective skill sets to the table, and we would be able to protect and preserve this beloved, iconic store and ensure that it would prosper for future generations."

Nicole Ihasz (left) and Ashley Ihasz-Austin - CHRISTINE GLADE
  • Christine Glade
  • Nicole Ihasz (left) and Ashley Ihasz-Austin

The three sisters had left Vermont for college and, eventually, careers in real estate development, venture investing, music estate and brand management, and film and TV production. They started their own companies — Lazar Ventures, Raptor Films and ALG Brands — and found ways to cross-pollinate and work together.

"We love to collaborate," Cathleen said. "It's always fun to brainstorm with each other, as we often come from different perspectives, but our interests overlap a great deal, too."

One of those overlapping interests is their hometown. Ashley moved back in 2017, and Nicole did the same during the pandemic. With Cathleen, who lives in Manhattan, they were looking to start or acquire a local business.

Northshire's need for new leadership "was serendipitous," Cathleen said, despite the sadness surrounding Lu French's death. Clark French remains a stakeholder and serves as an adviser to the Ihasz sisters, who now oversee the two stores and Northshire's e-commerce platform, as well as their previous enterprises.

"Regardless of what other personal or professional commitments we have, Northshire is top priority," Nicole said. "It has been a challenging few years for the stores, but our management team and all the staff have done a phenomenal job of weathering those storms. We want to make sure that this transition is as seamless as possible, so we are giving the store as much attention as we can."

"What we're really focused on is the fact that we're excited to take over this legacy," Ashley said. "We're proud and honored to be able to do that."

On a Friday afternoon in December, the Manchester Center store was buzzing. A small black-and-white dog followed his owners as they browsed the fiction shelves. Up a wide wrought-iron staircase, in the children's section, a Christmas tree was decorated with paper tags bearing the names of kids in the Northshire Book Angel program — a joint initiative with local schools that allows customers to buy books to give to children who might not otherwise have them.

Posters promoted upcoming author visits, both in person and online. Every corner held an upholstered chair or couch where you could plop down and read.

Northshire Bookstore - CHRISTINE GLADE
  • Christine Glade
  • Northshire Bookstore

"It's quite large for an indie," said Emily Richey, who lives in Singapore but makes a beeline for Northshire Bookstore whenever she visits her extended family in Vermont. "I love seeing what my nieces and nephews are picking out of the children's section before heading downstairs to peruse fiction or new releases."

Kate Jellema, who makes regular pilgrimages to Northshire from her home in Brattleboro, said it's the "staff picks" that draw her — the bookmark-like cards peeking out of individual novels. "I read every single one, and I love the personal, detailed reviews," she said. "Many times, they're about books I haven't even heard of, and most of the time, they're books I end up really enjoying."

Ashley Loiacono of Saratoga Springs is a customer of both Northshire stores. She feels "a sense of comfort" whenever she walks in and likes "getting lost in the stacks," she said. "My dog Bravo is a big fan, too. The staff are super dog-friendly — they always give him treats and belly rubs."

The customer service also gets praise from Eileen Parks, a school librarian who, on her most recent visit, had trouble finding a particular book in the children's section. "The person working there just would not give up," Parks said. "We worked together to find the book, and we ended up talking, and I left feeling like I had a new acquaintance."

That's the sort of feeling the Ihasz sisters experienced when they were kids, and it's how they want Northshire to remain as it evolves.

The pandemic initially wreaked havoc on independent bookstores nationwide — especially those like Northshire, whose revenue comes mostly from in-person sales. Now, however, the Ihasz sisters are optimistic. They're full of plans to expand their online store and their used-book offerings, revamp their website and social media strategy, schedule larger events at both stores, and partner with local organizations and schools.

"It is very important to us that the bookstore continues to thrive as a community center," Ashley said.

"There's an energy coming off the walls in here," mused Nicole, who went through a Shakespeare phase after Stine and likens herself to Prospero in The Tempest, sailing off in a boat with all of his books.

"This is a place of stories," she said. "Every customer we interact with has a story, and we learn something from them."

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Next Chapter"