State of the Arts
There’s no way you’d confuse 1980s urban freestylers Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with 21st-century central Vermonters Lisa Christie and Lisa Cadow. The two friends started out calling their lit-minded blog lisalisabookjam, then changed it to the Book Jam  — for simplicity’s sake, surmises Penny McConnel. The co-owner of Norwich Bookstore , McConnel calls the two Lisas “hot tickets,” and for good reason.
Cadow used to work at the store; Christie still does. Both are involved with the Norwich Public Library. Christie is the founder of Everybody Wins! Vermont, an extracurricular reading program in public schools. And the women are indefatigable champions of books, in person and on their blog, making suggestions for a variety of potential readers — such as their current holiday gift guide on Book Jam — and hosting book-oriented events. Their efforts benefit not only their town’s independent bookseller and library but a community of readers.
That community includes the “200 to 250” subscribers to the Book Jam blog, Christie says. She adds that the site gets upward of 100 hits a day after new posts. Those numbers may not sound like much, but, despite the small scale, she and Cadow are pleased that “people in town are talking about books, grateful for our suggestions and are supporting the Norwich Bookstore,” Christie says.
What’s now a blog didn’t start out that way. At first, says McConnel, she and the Lisas considered a book-oriented radio show and podcasts. But the production demands surpassed their limited recording equipment. “Lisa Cadow has a food blog [Fork on the Road],” McConnel says, “and so the idea eventually turned into a book blog.”
The bookstore is not directly involved with the blog, but the two enterprises are clearly symbiotic. Working at the store introduces Christie to new books, and she and Cadow openly express their loyalty to indie booksellers. The feeling is mutual. A current sidebar on the blog notes, “Thanks to Penny at Norwich Bookstore, Book Jam made [New Hampshire Public Radio’s] Annual Holiday Book Show.”
The Lisas are generous with their own words, not simply listing books but providing mini reviews and, sometimes, personal commentary on why a book resonated. Christie and Cadow each have a “bookshelf” on the blog where they recommend dozens of releases in a variety of categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s. They range from hot best sellers by the likes of Dave Eggers and J.K. Rowling to lesser-known releases by local authors, including detective novelist Archer Mayor and young-adult author Sarah Stewart Taylor. Not all the books are new: One of Christie’s recommendations, for example, is mystery writer Josephine Tey’s 1951 The Daughter of Time. “I reread this book as research for a future Book Jam post,” Christie writes. “It held up!”
Perusing the Book Jam blog, one wants nothing more than to sit down and read for hours, days. Perhaps the Lisas — both working mothers — could tell us how they find the time?
McConnel is a multitasker, too — these days, all booksellers do something besides sell books, and Norwich Bookstore is no exception. In addition to selling gift items, such as cards, wrapping paper and games, McConnel organizes a lot of events, both in-house and at other venues. Christie and Cadow are involved in a new and, so far, highly successful one called “Pages in the Pub,” McConnel says, which has been held twice at the Norwich Inn. It’s an evening in which people can enjoy wine and talk about books — with, of course, their local independent bookseller. Attendees are given a roster of books to be discussed and a checklist to note what they’d like to buy. Reports Christie: “We sold a ridiculous number of books in less than an hour!”
Maybe serving wine is the way to go?
Another successful annual enterprise, McConnel notes, is the store’s Book Angel program, in which people buy books to fulfill “wish lists” compiled by local nonprofit agencies. She hangs a large wreath in the store in mid-November decorated with paper angels bearing individual requests; customers can purchase a specific title or simply donate money and let the store’s staff choose. (This and similar charitable gift programs are popular at indie bookstores around the state.)
In addition, says McConnel, “We do as much as we possibly can to sell books outside the store — at the Center for Cartoon Studies, at house parties, at Dartmouth College.” She adds that the store held an event for three self-published authors in the fall. “We’ll do that again,” the bookseller says.
Accommodating the burgeoning ranks of self-published authors — and authors with small publishers that don’t pay for publicity tours — is a growing niche for indie bookstores. At Phoenix Books Burlington, owners Mike DeSanto and Renée Reiner have hit on a way to offer these writers in-store readings while covering their own costs. As part of a “local author program,” they offer shelf space to Vermont writers and charge them $150 per event. But this is “less a revenue stream and more a cooperative effort,” DeSanto says, noting the staff hours it takes to prepare for and put on an event.
He adds that Phoenix would need to hold five or six readings a week to profit from the program. Still, an event that draws even a small audience is likely to result in sales that the store might not have had otherwise.
DeSanto says he’s been in “serious negotiations” with makers of an electronic book machine that produces volumes on demand, which has been a hit with self-publishing authors. He expects to decide by February whether to purchase one. Northshire Bookstore  in Manchester Center and Boxcar & Caboose Bookshop  in St. Johnsbury have been augmenting their bookselling for several years with niche publishing via the Espresso Book Machine, made by On Demand Books. Outlets with the Espresso also have access to various digital libraries, enabling them to offer potentially millions of titles.
Speaking of digital books, Phoenix has been selling the Kobo, an e-reader created for and in partnership with independent booksellers. Various models go for about $80 to $200, depending on size and options. “The first batch we ordered is coded for our store, so we get a little rebate on sales,” DeSanto says. “It’s not much, but it helps.”
Why purchase an e-reader in a bookstore rather than online? For the same reason people like to buy physical books, DeSanto says: “They want to hold it, touch it, see how it feels.” He’s skeptical about the number of book sales touted by the e-reader industry but acknowledges the devices are not going away.
At the Norwich Bookstore, McConnel says she’s beginning to sell the Kobo as well, but her enthusiasm is muted. “I just don’t know about that yet,” she says.
Ultimately, booksellers are grateful that patrons still like to read. Perhaps many of us continue to believe, as Book Jam’s Christie puts it, “in the power of books to tell stories, and to create empathic communities.”