Much more than books can be found at this quirky, old-fashioned bookstore.
In 1986, Rick Rayfield was a tenured professor of biopsychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago when his mother and step-father, Tanya and Oliver Haskard, decided to sell their Waitsfield bookstore, the Tempest Book Shop. They offered him first right of refusal. Vermont won out, but it wasn’t easy.
by Roberta Nubile
Walking into the Tempest Book Shop on Main Street in Waitsfield, one finds a place with a touch of whimsy, more than a dash of intellectual flair, and a whole lot of community spirit. That’s not unlike its owner, Rick Rayfield.
“Rick has his finger on the pulse of the Valley,” says Nancy Smith, a loyal customer and volunteer coordinator for Mad River Valley Food Shelf, where Rayfield donates seven loaves of fresh-baked bread every week.
“I bake eight, we eat one, and take seven to the Food Shelf,” says Rayfield with a laugh. It’s a form of tithing, except we give 88 percent.” He’s been baking bread for about 10 years, he adds. “My former father-in-law invented the Au Bon Pain and Panera Restaurant chains. He was a wonderful cook but didn’t bake. I thought it would be fun to be the baker in the family.”
“Rick knows everyone and introduces people to each other,” Smith says. “He makes us aware of what’s going on in the Valley, and always has a good story to tell.” One story starts with an explanation about the Lionel trains whirring around the perimeter of the store.
Rayfield, 58, bought the Denver Zephyr replica train because it was the one he used to ride out West to go skiing from Chicago — his academic home for 16 years, before he moved to Vermont in 1986 to buy the bookstore from his parents.
Backtrack to the late 1960s, when the bookstore, then called the Vermont Book Shop, was founded by the late renowned bookseller Dike Blair as a branch to his Middlebury bookshop.
As the Mad River Valley became a destination of the jet set, Blair saw a business opportunity and opened a bookstore on the second floor of the Old High School on Vermont 100.
Steve Fischer, who is now director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, managed the store for about eight years, until Blair decided to sell it.
Rayfield’s mother and stepfather, Tanya and Oliver Haskard, who lived in England at the time, bought it sight unseen in 1977 after reading an ad in the international edition of the Wall Street Journal. They’d contemplated a move to a more pastoral life, and the Valley seemed like the place.
They renamed the store the Tempest Book Shop, Rayfield explains, because, short on cash but resourceful, they wanted a new name that would neatly fit where the word “Vermont” once was.
In January 1980, the Haskards moved the shop to its current location in the Village Square Shopping Center on Main Street. “The Old High School had huge, single-pane windows,” Rayfield explains. “It was cold and drafty and on the second floor — hard for customers and UPS. All the stores suffered from limited parking, limited heat, and edge-of-village location.”
Other stores — the Tulip Tree, Hide and Sheep, Blue Toad, and a health food store —moved to Village Square from the Old High School at the same time, he says, but of those, only Blue Toad and the Tempest remain.
Rayfield worked at the shop during his school vacations from The University of Chicago, where he eventually earned a doctorate in biopsychology. Then, in 1986, his parents, “exhausted,” he says, “decided to sell the store, and offered me the right of first refusal.”
His decision was not easy. Raised in Illinois and deeply rooted in Chicago, Rayfield, with his then-wife, pondered the change for two months. A Renaissance man at 32, he’d already earned lifetime tenure at Roosevelt University in Chicago, conducted research in oxygen uptake, designed computer programs for college labs, served as chairman of the arts and sciences council, chaired the faculty senate, led a Boy Scout troop, sat on his fraternity’s board, and been active in local politics. “I had a lot of fun real fast,” he says. “Some people do it with drugs and music; I did it with academia.”
Ultimately, it was the lure of being near his first wife’s parents and the chance to raise his eldest daughter, Rikki, now 26, in the country, that led them to say yes to the bookstore.
Rayfield left Chicago in 1986, “literally the day the Daley Machine died,” he says, and moved to a new life in Vermont. The family rented a quintessential Vermont farmhouse with, he adds, “better cable than in the whole city of Chicago.”
He took about a three-year hiatus from teaching and research while he modernized the bookstore. First, he threw away the index card inventory and installed a computerized inventory. He brought in music on CDs — which in 2011, are hard to sell, he says — and got rid of LPs.
In 1987, his was the first bookshop in Vermont to have Bowker’s Books in Print on CD-ROM. Despite the updates, says Ann Day, 81, a longtime customer, Valley Reporter nature columnist, and self-described Valley historian, the place has maintained a “funky, hometown feel.” Day may well be one of the more qualified to say that, as she not only shopped at the original bookstore when it was at the high school, but also taught the junior ski program when the space was a school assembly room.
The Tempest carries Day’s engagement calendar, and she reports that “Rick is very supportive of local authors. I always see someone I know there. It’s very community-minded and Rick’s wife, Holliday, is part and parcel of that.”
Holliday Kane Rayfield, whom he met in ’93 at a friend’s wedding where he presided as justice of the peace, is a practicing psychiatrist in the Burlington area. “Having a family business runs through our daily life,” she says. “The kids grew up in the store, and we are there in some way every day.”
“The kids” include Rikki and her three half sisters: Murilla, 19, from Rayfield’s second marriage; and Sophie, 15, and Miranda, 6, from his current marriage.
“The store is such an enjoyable place to be,” says Holliday, “that stopping in for an hour leads to a whole afternoon. The children honed their math and reading skills spending so much time here.”
Sophie can run the store alone if need be; Miranda enjoys the comings and goings from her vantage point in the loft, a cozy space complete with bean bag chair and DVD player, above the ample children’s section that Rayfield built for Sophie one Christmas.
Rayfield admits he doesn’t read to his youngest as much as he would like. His interests and accomplishments are as varied as the subjects of the many books in his shop. In addition to running the Tempest, he bakes bread, is “perpetually” building a house, sings in choirs, does computer programming, and is consultant in England as a specialist in sensory mechanisms and operant conditioning in cats. He builds laboratory parts in his basement, acts in and directs plays with his Freemasons group, and commutes weekly to St. Joseph College in Connecticut, where he is director of the liberal studies major.
In 2005, he suffered a stroke, from which, six years later, he appears to have fully recovered. He has too much to think about to let that stop him, he says, such as how to keep his small-town bookstore viable in the changing face of retail and books in general.
When asked about Kindle and the rise of other forms of e-books in the market, Rayfield responds, “I think Kindle is great. I drew up a plan for that 30 years ago. It’s good not to cut down trees. On the other hand ...” and with flourish he displays a book published in 1892 by Rowland Robinson called Vermont; a Study of Independence.
“Look at the gold on the pages to prevent dust. You can’t find some of the facts that are in these books on the Internet. Sitting by the fire on a cold night? Yeah, I’ll take a real book. But Kindle is great to pack for a hiking trip.”
Employee Jim Dodds, a self-described “bibliophage,” has worked at the Tempest almost seven years. “Books will always be around, but the form will change,” he says. “People growing up in the computer age are going to choose Kindle. But I think that small retail will be less affected by the e-readers than the big stores.
“This is a special place. It’s not tidy, it’s not modern, but people just love it. There’s a certain kind of people who come in here. We have marvelous conversations. I work here half for the people and half for the books.”
“The books” comprises a thoughtfully chosen potpourri of subjects that change to keep up with the trends and needs of the customers. What the shop doesn’t have, says Holliday, “we love to help people find.”
A stroll through the store reveals a little bit of everything, well organized into 1,000 square feet. In addition to the books, there are puzzles, posters, note cards, calendars, and, recently added to keep up with market demand, a DVD rental service.
Rayfield says he strives to stay diverse, as retail is “clearly in transition. When you need something specific, people turn to the Internet. So here, I also change watch batteries, run the train, play music, and make the store as appealing as possible. I’m even considering sharpening knives. Although we love books, we can’t be just a bookstore.”
Clearly, the Tempest is not just a bookstore. It’s hard to imagine Barnes & Noble’s hosting a clothing-optional book-signing party like the one the Tempest held one summer after hours. And no Internet shopping experience can do justice to the time that Werner Von Trapp, Trapp family singer turned Waitsfield dairy farmer, came in and started to cry, so moved with pride because the music playing over the sound system was that of his daughter Elisabeth Von Trapp.
Then there are the live interactions of locals and visitors coming in and sharing their daily lives, “face-to-face, not on Facebook,” he says, adding that, despite the many interesting things he does, “When I put my keys in the door, and ask myself, ‘Do I love this job?’ the answer is, ‘Yes.’” •