Shelf Help

by Anne Averyt

Creating a literary dynasty

Claire_BenedictIn 2002, Claire Benedict and her husbnd, Robert Kasow, moved from Boston to Montpelier to buy Rivendell Books, a used-book shop. They bought Bear Pond Books in Montpelier in 2006. He runs Rivendell while she runs Bear Pond. In December 2010, they opened Rivendell Books in the former Waldenbooks space in Berlin.

Wooden floors that creak, handmade signs, and a tabletop display of staff picks give Bear Pond Books in Montpelier its competitive edge. Bookstore owners Claire Benedict and Rob Kasow know they can’t compete with online giants like Amazon or chains like Barnes & Noble, so they concentrate on what they do best.

Robert_KasowThey operate a bookstore customers can walk into and browse, a local store where the staff knows them by name and can recommend a book they’re pretty sure they might like. “It’s the personal touch” that keeps bringing people back to Bear Pond, says neighbor and longtime customer Jean Olson.

“Bear Pond is part of what makes Montpelier’s downtown a pretty unique place,” says Linn Syz, who serves on the board of Montpelier Alive with Benedict. The bookstore’s friendly ambience and “creaky old wooden floors,” she says, “make it a great place to just go into. Claire is always in the store and makes time to talk, and they have a great staff who’s always there to help.”

Bear Pond Books has been a favorite capital city venue for nearly 40 years. Kasow and Benedict bought it from longtime owners Michael Katzenberg and Linda Prescott in the fall of 2006. It was Kasow and Benedict’s second Montpelier bookstore. They also own Rivendell Books, a used-book shop across the street from Bear Pond. Kasow manages Rivendell while Benedict steers Bear Pond.

Owning a bookstore wasn’t a lifelong dream for Kasow and Benedict. It was more an opportunity they settled on and one they’ve never regretted. They each spent their early lives in urban areas. Benedict grew up in Madison, N.J., and Kasow in suburban Boston, where they met and were married in 1991. But a decade later they were looking for a change — a less frenetic way of life where people know their neighbors and their kids can walk to school.

“Here we can walk everywhere,” Kasow says. Their son, Julian, and daughter, Georgia, were 9 and 6 when the family moved to Montpelier in 2002. Kasow had recently sold his Boston-area business and was looking at other small-business opportunities, particularly local bookstores.

“We stumbled on the sale of Rivendell Books online” Kasow says, and in that summer, they bought the store, sold their house in Boston, and moved north. “I’ve never lived in such a small town,” Benedict muses. “What surprised me was that we didn’t know anyone, but everyone knew us.”

Neither of them had any experience in the book business when they began. Benedict graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1987 with a degree in management and consumer politics, and Kasow’s concentration at Ohio Wesleyan College was humanities and journalism. But he had 15 years of retail experience under his belt, having owned three paint and wallpaper stores in the Boston area. Also, he says, “the sellers stayed for two weeks to show me the ropes.”

The actual learning curve, he admits was more like two years. “That’s how long it took to figure it all out, to understand the rhythm of the business, what the customer base was like, and what their expectations were.”

The pair worked together at Rivendell for four years before the opportunity arose to purchase Bear Pond. Just before Christmas 2010, they opened a third shop, also Rivendell Books, in the former Waldenbooks space at the Berlin Mall. The three stores have different inventories, personalities, and customer bases, which has proved to be an effective business strategy. Rather than competing, the stores complement one another.

It’s not easy to sustain local bookstores in an era of box stores, e-books, and online competition, Kasow admits, but he says Vermont’s social culture helps. “People here are very conscious of supporting local stores and local institutions because they know it adds something to the quality of their lives. I don’t think in a lot of other places in the country people have necessarily grasped that.”

“Vermonters are very community oriented,” Benedict says. “They inherently knew the importance of buying local long before someone put a logo and a slogan on it.”

Karen Williams-Fox, for 13 years the owner of Woodbury Mountain Toys, believes loyal community support keeps the Montpelier downtown vibrant. “There are three separate locally owned bookstores here,” she points out, “and my store sells children’s books as well. It’s really interesting — not only the quality of the stores here but the quantity.”

Bear Pond specializes in new books, Kasow explains, and Rivendell’s inventory is eclectic and completely fluid. “I buy almost all the books we sell from customers,” he says, “and every day there is a basically new selection of books.” Bear Pond is where customers shop when they want a best seller, he says, while “Rivendell is a great browsing store where the shelves are always changing.”

Because of its location, the Berlin store serves a different clientele and offers a different mix of books, predominantly popular paperback mysteries, romances, and westerns. Whenever a customer at one of the stores is looking for a specific book not on the shelf, Kasow or Benedict can usually locate the book at one of their other stores.

A major challenge for new owners is putting their personal imprint on the store. At Bear Pond Books, it’s also been important to maintain the flavor and character of a store everyone loved. “While we wanted to put on our own imprint, everyone else wanted to keep the store exactly the way it was and never change it. I think a lot of people were fearful that we would make too many changes.”

Although Benedict and Kasow are committed to keeping Bear Pond a quality independent bookstore, it has changed under Benedict’s direction. For one thing, she orders all the books, so the stock selection is filtered through her interests. There are more cookbooks and contemporary fiction on the shelves now and less history. She has kept and developed the popular series of author readings and the display table of staff picks, an eclectic selection of books recommended by her staff.

“Bear Pond has had to change and evolve because the book business has changed,” Benedict says. “We’ve kept the flavor and the unique qualities that people loved about Bear Pond while also keeping it current, adjusting to the realities of the book business, and putting a little of our personalities into it.”

One change has been the addition of more sidelines to the product mix. To supplement book sales, Bear Pond carries a selection of popular gift items, cards, and journals — all geared “for book lovers.” On prominent display in the front of the store are book-cover T-shirts and Scrabble mugs, as well as an assortment of teas.

“Gifts are a growing part of business,” Benedict admits, not only, he says, because it makes good business sense, but also because “customers really like it. We try to bring in unique items, things that are a little quirky, a little different, something you can’t find in other stores in town.”

The biggest challenges continue to be the strength of the economy and big-box/online competition. Both Bear Pond and Rivendell have websites and offer books and gifts through the Internet, but they confess it is not a profit center. Rivendell also serves as the official bookstore for the New England Culinary Institute, selling all NECI’s textbooks, T-shirts, and logo wear, and maintaining an e-commerce site for the school.

“We constantly bump up against the problem of little or no growth versus the fact that our fixed costs are always going up — fuel costs, health care, and so on,” says Robert. “Dealing with the economic realities without drastically changing who we are is a very significant challenge. It’s a matter of how are you going to adapt, make it work.”

Things are looking up. “I think our future is solid,” Benedict says, and Kasow agrees.

“We’re actually on the way up a little bit. We had a rough stretch during the recession, but now we’re bouncing back.”

“We’re not going to get rich,” says Benedict, “but we’ve figured out how to create a balance, like bringing in the gift items and keeping our inventory tight.”

Spare time is precious for Benedict and Kasow, but when they can, they enjoy reading, hiking and travel. They know their fantasy dream to tour Southeast Asia — “eating our way across,” says Robert — will have to wait for a big economic boom, but they’re hopeful that they can soon achieve a more realistic goal of a long January vacation — somewhere other than Vermont.

“Anywhere warm,” they say, laughing in agreement. “Maybe next year.” •