Staying In Print

Middlebury’s 60-year-old bookstore is in good hands

by Holly Hungerford

Becky DaytonIn 2005, Becky Dayton bought The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury on an impulse, because she loved Middlebury and wanted it to thrive. The venerable establishment turns 60 this year.

Becky Dayton didn’t set out to own a bookshop. “All I’d ever done was read a book from the front to the back,” she says. Still, in 2005, Dayton made what she terms an “impulse purchase” and bought the venerable Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury from John and Laura Scott, who had bought it in 1993 from the original owners, Dike and Reba Blair.

“I bought the business because I was dreadfully bored and wanted something to sink my teeth into,” she says, “but also because I love Middlebury. This is my home, and I don’t want it to die. I want it to have a vibrant downtown community.” The shop celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

A Connecticut native and longtime Vermonter, Dayton didn’t find it easy to put her own stamp on the established business. The first two years she kept the space as it had always been while making plans to renovate. In 2007, she bit the bullet, closed the store for the month of July, and completely redid the interior.

“People don’t like change. It’s the ‘who-moved-my-cheese’ syndrome, but now after four years, I get more compliments than complaints,” she says.

Dayton has also had to adjust the inventory the store carries. “I’m trying to introduce more non-book merchandise,” she says, “because it has a higher margin.” She’s also toying with cutting back on some of the sections in the shop. “We’re a general interest book store, and that’s kind of a dying breed for independent bookstores. We need to figure out what we do best and then sell those things and fill the physical space with other revenue-driven merchandise.”

She notes that the more local authors and local-interest products the shop carries, the stronger the store is. “Grant Novak, the book buyer, has been with the store for over 30 years and knows the local writers’ market and publishing world really well,” she says. “When something new local comes out, Grant’s right on it.”

The growth of online retailers such as Amazon.com is a continuing challenge for the shop and for independent booksellers in general, Dayton says. She estimates her sales have declined about 20 percent since 2005. “A lot of it is in music sales, but that draws down the overall sales and distorts the picture.” She’s undaunted. “I know my customers. I know them all by name. I know what they like. I like to think that ultimately that’s what will set us apart — really personal service.”

Grant Novak and Carol RobertsThe more local authors and local interest products the shop carries, the strong store sales are. Grant Novak, the book manager, has worked at the store for more than 30 years. Carol Roberts is the music manager.

Dayton tells the story of a recent e-mail she received from a customer whose grandmother had broken her hip and was in the hospital. “He asked if I would pick out a book and deliver it to her,” she says with a smile. “I was at home at the time, but I threw the kids in the car, stopped by the store, and dropped off the book on the way to piano lessons. You can’t get that on Amazon!”

This personal connection is one of the things she likes best about the business. Amy Hungerford, a Yale professor who is teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English this year, quickly found the bookshop. “I like the range and selection of books,” she says. “I shop here because I know I’ll find something I want to read, because I have the pleasure of books in hand right away instead of waiting for shipping, and because I buy from local, independent bookstores whenever I can. Those stores are a center of many local reading communities, and I don’t want to weaken them by taking my business online.”

The Internet isn’t all bad news. Dayton uses it to her advantage. In 2005, when she bought the store, there was no website. “These days you can’t have a business without some kind of Web presence,” she says, so a year later, she created a website through the American Booksellers Association. Recently Dayton joined several social networking sites. “Facebook is the ultimate vehicle for personal service,” she says. “I look at it several times a day, and if someone wants recommendations about a book, I can get back to them really quickly.” Dayton also uses Twitter, where she reaches a younger clientele than on Facebook. She intends to try blogging.

Offering special events has proven to be a good way to invite customers into the store. These events range from author visits to music performances to poetry slams. “I learned after several failed events that the ones that are most successful are the really, really local authors. The huge failures are authors I may have heard of but nobody else has,” says Dayton.

Louise Blake and Skylar AtkinsEvents that bring customers into the store range from author visits to music performances to poetry slams. Louise Blake and Skylar Atkins are booksellers.

The Vermont Book Shop employs three full-time and five to seven part-time staff, depending on the time of year. When she bought the store, she kept everyone on. Five or six of these employees still work at the bookshop. “I have to brag a little bit,” Dayton says. “When I was closed for a month, I paid everyone their full wage.”

Today, Dayton is concerned the store may be overstaffed for the level of sales it has. Business dropped off markedly after Christmas 2008. The holiday was solid, says Dayton, but March, April, and May of this year grew progressively worse. Fortunately, June showed some improvement.

The Vermont Book Shop historically offered full-time staff fully paid health insurance, and Dayton continued this practice when she bought the business. The rising cost of health insurance is an increasing burden, however, and she fears she may end up having to decide between cutting some of the health insurance, cutting staff hours, or cutting staff altogether. “That’s the hard part about owning a business — dealing with the human side, the really human side of paychecks and health insurance and all that. I don’t want to lay people off,” she says with a sigh.

Dayton hasn’t had much experience making these kind of business decisions before now. Born and raised in Fairfield County, Conn., she moved with her family to Vermont the year she graduated from high school.

She enrolled at the University of Vermont, but before she graduated, she met and married Chris Dayton, her brother’s junior counselor in his freshman dorm at Middlebury College.

The couple moved to Massachusetts as Chris had a teaching position at the private school Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall. Dayton finished her degree at Simmons College in Boston, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in arts administration. “I had been thinking I’d love to work in a museum. Then we moved here and there weren’t many museums. I did work at the Sheldon Museum for a while, though,” she recalls.

The Daytons have two children: 14-year-old Charlie and 10-year-old Grace. Dayton stayed home with the children until purchasing the store. Now Chris, who was in real estate before the market dried up, stays home with them.

Dayton and her husband are self-avowed fitness fanatics. Away from work, she skis, runs, and cycles. She considers herself a rather unusual breed of bookseller. “I always laugh at myself because I’m the jock bookseller,” she says. “It’s not my life; it’s what I do for work. I am passionate about books and selling books, but I identify myself first as a wife and mother, a reader, and a cyclist.”

She is an avid reader and was fortunate to have a high school English teacher who nurtured her love of books. Today, she’d rather read than watch TV, preferring literary fiction — “books where the sentences are as appealing as the plot.” Her favorite author, she says, is the one who wrote whatever book she is currently passionate about. The rest of the family likes to read, too. For example, her son reads in the bathtub before bed. “We have a library in the kids’ bathroom full of books with warped pages,” she says, laughing.

Dayton, who bought the building the shop is in the year she did the renovations, doesn’t have plans for expansion. “We’re never going to sell more books,” she says. Instead, she says, she’s going to be creative, finding complementary products to sell and reinventing the store without having it become something different.

Her biggest hope, she adds with a laugh, is “that we can stay in business!” •