Today's Nantucket

Nantucket Bookstores Preserve Isle Magic

August 12, 2014 0 comments

Mitchell’s Book Corner, with its classic structure, heralds your arrival on Main. Across town, Nantucket Bookworks’ homey front lures you in like a warm cup of cocoa. Mainstays of island life since 1968 and 1972, the two stores continue to differentiate themselves from each other, and from other bookstores more generally, thanks to their passionate team led by Wendy Hudson.

Nantucket Bookworks

Nantucket Bookworks | Nantucket | MAHudson has been a dominant figure in the island book scene since 1995, when she first began working at Nantucket Bookworks, which was then run by its founder Patty Claflin. “When I came to Nantucket,” recounts Hudson, “I worked at Bartlett’s Farm on the farm truck, and I spent all my time hanging out in Bookworks and I just loved it. I mentioned to the owner that I’d love to work there if they ever needed anybody. A couple years later that worked out.” 1995 turned out to be the year that a lot of things worked out for Hudson: she married husband Randy and the couple founded Cisco Brewers, another island favorite. “I was a philosophy major,” jokes Hudson, “so I always say: books and beer—the good life.”

After five years of working under Claflin, Hudson became the proprietor of Bookworks. Suzanne Bennett, who worked with Claflin in the 80s and continues to serve as Bookworks Manager, says, “Patty and [her husband] Prenny, had been looking for a buyer and they wanted to make sure they handed it over to the right person. I think when Wendy came along they were like, ‘We’ve got the right person.’”

During the next decade and a half, Wendy and her co-workers have cultivated Bookworks into a store known not only for its book selection and whimsical accessories, but also its devotion. “Bookworks,” says Gennifer Costanzo, “has always been the one that stays open until 10 o’clock. In the winter when lights are out, at least you know the lights are going be on at Bookworks.”

Mitchell’s Book Corner

Mitchell's Book Corner | Nantucket | MAOn the other side of town, a few years after Hudson took over Bookworks, Mitchell’s Book Corner went through a similar adjustment. Since the late 1970s, when founders Henry “Mitch” Mitchell Havemeyer and Mary Allen Sargent Havemeyer passed away, their daughter Mimi Beman had run the store. Beman, who passed in 2010, sold Mitchell’s and its property to ReMain Nantucket in 2008, after three decades of operating this town favorite. “She was an exemplary, outstanding human,” Bennett says about Beman. “She was an incredibly brilliant woman and an amazing reader. She was the kind of person that you could walk into the store and she’d put a book in your hand and you would love it. She knew her customers really well.   Wendy, also, is very good at that.”

So good that Hudson now successfully lends her prowess to both Bookworks and Mitchell’s, where she has worked as Head Reader since 2012 after partnering with ReMain. Hudson and staff members, though, are quick to assure customers that the stores are to retain and grow their distinct identities. Hudson describes the two: “At Mitchell’s I’d say we have more of the Nantucket/regional history emphasis that we’re building every year. And maybe more on the adult, literary content. Then with Bookworks we do more and more business with the kids, which we absolutely love.”

Bennett sees the differentiation of the stores as a guiding focus. “For Wendy, it’s been really important for Mitchell’s to keep its personality and for Bookworks to keep its personality.” Bennett expands on Hudson’s desire to foster the two store identities: “I think it serves the community better and makes these two bookstores as independent bookstores able to survive [by] keeping things different, so Bookworks definitely does have a more eclectic mix of interesting sidelines. Whereas I think Mitchells might have globes and leather-handled magnifying glasses, very beautiful things, we’ll stay doll chandelier and sarongs, all that kind of fun stuff.”

Nantucket Bookworks | Nantucket | MA

One way in which Hudson plans to continue to develop the two stores is through events and marketing. Now working as Events Coordinator is Gennifer Costanzo, who returned to the island two months ago. Costanzo first began working with Hudson for the inaugural Book Festival in 2012. In its three years, the Festival has rapidly grown to become a hallmark event that attracts authors with commercial and literary credentials. Hudson credits the success of the Festival partially to the partnership with ReMain. “It’s created the opportunity to do the Book Festival and hopefully do more outreach,” she says. To capitalize on the Festival, the bookstores enlisted Tim Ehrenberg and his company Brand New – Nantucket. The marketing consulting firm continues to lend branding and social media support to the stores, for whom the Festival is only the beginning of event development.

“The Book Festival was very successful,” says Costanzo. “It really created a buzz on books. So my primarily role this summer is to continue the buzz on books.” Costanzo already has her hands full developing new programs and bolstering the more classic events like book signings. Recent additions to the stores’ calendars are a memoir-writing group at Mitchell’s and a story time/face painting events at Bookworks.

Costanzo hopes to add story time in Spanish, as well as Teen Talks and a health-oriented series. She envisions Teen Talks as a place for teens to share their off-island adventures. “We live here as a community,” she says, “but it’s wonderful if you can share those stories of what you did when you weren’t here.”

For the health project, Costanzo plans to involve the island community heavily. “I want to look at how we define health as a community. How are we looking at our mental health, spiritual health, emotional health, physical health? With that said, we will take one month and look at one component of health, and offer different lectures and a chance for people to come in and talk about what they’re doing on the island. And with all of that, of course, we would be offering books that would help people.”

Most of these events are intended for the Nantucket Room, the second floor of Mitchell’s so-named for its locally focused selection. “It’s a community based room that can be utilized for a lot of different events and it doesn’t necessarily just have to be about a book, even though we’re a bookstore,” says Costanzo. “It’s about learning. When you read a book you learn. So it’s about doing events where people can come and learn.”

“For this small of a community, we are very fortunate that we have two bookstores,” says Costanzo. “The fact that [Hudson] keeps both bookstores open year round—that to me is a tremendous service to the community.” This idea of service is important to Hudson. “I hope to figure out what does the community want,” says Hudson. Costanzo says the same. “I’ve been trying to get a pulse on what are some of the real needs that would be beneficial for the bookstores to represent that we could offer,” she says.

Mitchell's Book Corner | Nantucket | MA

Customer relations are always on the mind at these two bookstores. “We know our customers by name. That’s important to me,” says Bennett. “I don’t care if they’re five years old, 85 years old—if they tell me something’s cool, I find it and get into the store.” Bennett recounts examples of exemplary customer service: ordering Rainbow Looms after five kids asked for them; finding the item a customer wanted and, knowing they were leaving island that night, meeting them at the movie theatre to deliver it. Bennett says on Bookworks, “It’s a community center. It’s some place to go and a place that parents feel really comfortable having their kids come.” At both stores, the staff goes above and beyond to help customers discover their next great read. And if it’s not on the shelves, the stores will order it for you.

“I think it’s old-school,” Bennett says about the stores. “The way it should be.” It’s this authentic dedication to preserving a slice of a fading world that makes the stores such admirable enterprises. Hudson explains, “A place like Nantucket—people come here because we’re holding that preservation: the architecture, the environment, the quality of life, the connection to family, the connection to community. And a physical book is an extension of that return to tradition and what’s important.”

Hudson and her co-workers, though, are obviously more than aware of the dramatic impact technology has had on the book industry. “Of course an e-book has such merit—if you are traveling, if something’s out of stock and you need to have something. I get it,” says Hudson. In fact, the stores do offer e-books through Zola Books, a company that allows you to support your independent store of choice with your purchase.

But Hudson is in the business of selling real books and that is not going to change anytime soon. “My staff just firmly believes that it’s an inferior reading experience. We are all such big believers in paper books,” she says. “I really do think you focus differently and learn differently [with paper],” Hudson explains. “I know the books I’ve read in e-format, I breeze through and I don’t retain the same level.”

“We don’t do it for money, we do it for love,” she adds. That being said, love can only take you so far. “Its very important for people to realize, especially when you come in a store and you see a book and talk to a bookseller, it is just so urgent that that sale stay with the person that recommends it, and that institution.”   Hudson is referring to the tendency for people to browse stores and buy on Amazon—an understandable tactic, she concedes, but one that is particularly damaging given the hardships publishers face working, or not working, with Amazon. On Mitchell’s front counter are stickers reading: ‘I didn’t buy it on Amazon.’

For the moment, though, the stores are bustling and Hudson says future plans are to continue in the same vein. “Look at me,” she laughs, “I’m selling books like mad here! That’s what’s so great about summer.” Hudson, however, will be making a few changes more permanent than the robust event line-up Costanzo is working on: the beloved Bookworks building is due for an update. “I do have to renovate that building,” says Hudson, “so I’m in the process of trying to get as much feedback from the community as possible. It’s an opportunity to tweak the model with probably more space for the non-book stuff that people love. Every year that gets to be a little bit bigger,” says Hudson. “As the price of books rise, we want everyone to have a reason to come in and get different things.”

Bennett, like many customers, voices the concern that Hudson is absolutely conscious of. “I hope we don’t lose that magic,” says Bennett. “I can’t tell you how many times a day I hear, ‘There’s nothing like this at home.’” Stocked with everything from The Paris Review to party confetti, Bookworks’ small space exudes a personal warmth that invites lingering. “We want kids back there lying on the carpet,” says Bennett, “with a pile of books around them, picking out what they want, as well as a cozy spot for anybody to sit with a pile of books and make a decision on which ones they want.”

Bennett prides herself on helping to create this welcoming environment of wonder. “The best compliment I think we’ve ever had,” she recounts, “is from a little kid. I remember them walking in and I heard them say to their parents, ‘Oh my gosh, this is like walking into fairyland!’” This fervor for the magic of the bookstore extends across town to Mitchell’s. As Costanzo sums up: “Great things happen in a bookstore.”

by Julianne Adams

Editor’s Note: You will find staff book picks for August on the Bookworks Blog at www.independentandouttosea.com.