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In Vermont, town browses for a new bookstore

In Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, they're looking for a few good books. Actually they're looking for a good bookstore.

In an ever-tougher business environment for independent booksellers, the town of St. Johnsbury, population 7,571 as of 2000, is offering startup money and a break on rent to a qualified person willing to open a bookstore downtown. The word is out in the book trade, and St. Johnsbury officials say calls are coming in.

"I'm here to tell the world that we want them," said Barbara Morrow, executive director of St. Johnsbury Works, an agency dedicated to sustaining downtown. "We need a new bookstore."

Nestled among wooded hills 175 miles from Boston, off Interstate 91 near the New Hampshire border, St. Johnsbury has a classic New England town center, with brick storefronts and a town green. The retail blend on Railroad Street includes clothing stores, a sporting goods store, a pharmacy, an artisans guild shop, antique shops, banks, and restaurants.

For 27 years, there had also been Northern Lights Bookshop and Cafe, owned by Caroline DeMaio and Vanna Guldenschuh. Besides books and food, the store sold newspapers, cards, and gifts.

Four years ago, an adjoining building was devastated by fire, and Northern Lights was forced to close for four months. When it came back, many customers didn't.

"We had a hard time making it work the way we had done it before," DeMaio said. "It was a wonderful place, and I miss it as much as anybody." For several years, the owners sought a buyer, but in March they closed down.

It was a shock to Railroad Street -- like a missing front tooth, town officials say. "It was a nice place to browse for books and get a light lunch," said Joel A. Schwartz, the town's director of economic and community development. "It's really missed."

The nearest independent store is across the Connecticut River in Littleton, N.H., a 20-minute drive, and the next nearest is in Newport, 45 minutes away. Big chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders are even more distant.

Since the fire, the burned-out building on Railroad Street has been rehabilitated, with 25 units of senior housing. When Northern Lights closed, Morrow and Schwartz thought of seeking a new bookstore for the 3,000-square-foot space on the first floor.

"My dream would be a warm, noninstitutional-feeling and

-looking bookstore that understands browsers," Morrow said, "and as part of the store, a coffee or wine bar. We have a plethora of artists and writers in this area. A town like this, with long winters and an educated population, needs a bookstore." Gilman Housing Trust, the nonprofit agency that rehabbed the building, embraced the idea. "It has the potential for being a real gathering place for people in the community," said Bob Hansen, a rehabilitation specialist with the trust. "That's what the old store was. One of the benchmarks of a small town is how good a bookstore it has. We don't want a tanning salon or a gentleman's bar."

"That is the core self-image of the independent bookseller," said Rusty Drugan, executive director of New England Booksellers Association, who relayed the St. Johnsbury offer to his 600 members via e-mail. "We view a store as a community meeting place, where people come together."

Running a bookstore in a small town is not for the faint of heart. You need a feel for the community. Profit margins are razor-thin at best, and the competition from Internet giants such as is intense, especially in rural areas where people are accustomed to mail-order shopping. "You're never going to make as much money as you would in the stock market," Drugan said. "It has always been the case that people go into bookselling because they have a passion for books."

Clearly, some people have that passion. Inquiries have come in from as far away as North Carolina, and Schwartz said there have been several serious responses, including one visit. He isn't saying exactly how much money his agency could put in the deal, or how big a break on the rent it could give, but the town wants a qualified bookseller, not an amateur.

DeMaio, co-owner of the former Northern Lights, says she thinks a new store could succeed. "I think there is potential for a bookstore, but you need to know what you're doing," she said. "A small operation without too much overhead could do it. I certainly would be a customer."

David Mehegan can be reached at

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