I finished off my rather limited holiday shopping yesterday with a visit to two bookstores, Barnes & Noble in South Burlington, VT and The Flying Pig in Shelburne, VT.
I had a 25% off card at B&N that ended on the 24th, and with a family that's addicted to Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the kids) and Star Trek (me), I needed to cash in. Our local B&N is as corporate driven as you might imagine. That is, the layout in all the stores follows a format that is familiar and pleasant, with the requisite St*rbucks, comfy chairs to lounge in and a good used book section. The selection of books is large, if predictable, with sprinklings of local and small press books, and author appearance by local writers, of which we have an abundance.
You can go into a B&N pretty much anywhere and know your way around. My shopping philosophy - Shop Local - only somewhat applies here. But much of the staff has been there at least as long as I've been in VT, six years, and the salaries, rent and taxes go towards supporting the local economy. I've run into B&N staff in Yoga class, at local concerts and at the grocery store. They know their stock, and some of them, at least, are knowledgeable readers, particularly in the kids section. Despite this, the store is too corporate driven to feel like you are visiting someone's personal vision. You aren't. There's no community building going on here. But I got $50 off my DVD, and that's a good thing.
Ten miles away, in the Village of Shelburne, The Flying Pig Bookstore is another animal altogether. Shelburne is cute as a button and just as small, but recently has bloomed into quite a shopping destination. Shelburne is known around here as being a pocket of wealth and the village reflects that, but in a very New Englandy way- which, as a New Yorker, is still exotic to me. Nothing flashy. No box stores. All very tasteful. Shelburne is also home to the world class Shelburne Museum, just down the road.
The small shops are all in historic wood or brick buildings, some beautifully renovated. The stores are clustered in a central location along Rt. 7 and a gracefully curving offshoot around the village green. In the summer there's a farmers market. And my favorite cafe, Village Wine and Coffee, is right there, too.
The Flying Pig exemplifies great retailing. Owners Josie Leavitt and Elizabeth Bluemle are passionate readers, as are their staff. The store is beautifully designed to make use of every inch of floor and wall space, which they need to house their stock of 40,000 books. Josie, Elizabeth and the staff are so cordial and welcoming - and funny - that you feel like you are visiting their home, rather than their store. Looking at the stock you know the books are all selected by intelligent creative minds. Although the emphasis is on children's books, the adult sections are as varied and smart as the kids sections. In a nutshell, you can trust their choices. Readings by terrific authors, an informative newsletter and a well designed website with online shopping round out their brilliance.
An important part of being a retailer, and one that is so rare, is the art of being a host. Sometimes employees can fill this role. But usually it takes the presence of the owner, and a rare owner at that. The best stores, at least my favorites, are the ones where I not only feel like I've made a connection to the goods via the host, but also one in which I connect with other like minded shoppers. The best retailers will not only know regular customers, but introduce them to one another. Not in an an overbearing way - there's a fine line here - but in a graceful and knowledgeable way.
Josie and Elizabeth shine at this- as does Kevin at Shelburne Wine and Coffee. When a store has that ambiance, the clientele will start to take over the task as well. That's when a store comes alive, and makes a community.