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Independent bookseller finds niche with authors, community

Toadstool shop hosts writers, reading clubs

MILFORD, N.H. -- There are no fresh-brewed lattes at the Toadstool Bookshop, but readers can get their fill of books old and new.

This bookstore, a fixture in town for 16 years, is the youngest of the Toadstool trio of family-owned-and-operated bookstores. It is also the smallest, with 7,500 square feet of retail space. But that seems to work just fine in this southern New Hampshire community known for its quaintness.

Willard Williams and his family opened the first Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough 33 years ago, when he was just 20, because there was not a bookstore in their town.

''I came from a family who appreciated books," said Williams, who opened the second store in Keene in 1983. ''We wanted to create a general bookstore that would attract all sorts of patrons."

During a recent phone interview, a weary Williams, who was just coming off a Harry Potter weekend, recalled that the early years of business were slow going and that he worked in the store with his brother and sisters.

Unlike many chains or franchises, Toadstool did not have an operations manual. There would be no standardized training for managers and salespeople, because each store has a personality created by the employees as well as the communities the store serves. And while the Milford store, in the Lorden Plaza strip mall on Route 101A, is surrounded by retailers, there is no pressure to buy at this independent bookshop.

''Willard found a niche with Toadstool," said Glory Bier, a Wilton resident and regular customer. ''Other bookstores have come and gone, but his still remains."

Many agree that the Toadstool plays an important role in the community, as well as the book industry.

Rusty Drugan, executive director of New England Booksellers, said independent bookstores like Toadstool play a vital role in connecting up-and-coming authors and readers. Small bookstores often host events at which local authors, who may publish only 15,000 copies on a first run, can introduce their books.

''Stores put the books in the window; they bring in authors and help them network and develop a reader base," he said.

Toadstool carries approximately 80,000 titles, compared with 125,000 titles available at the Nashua Barnes & Noble.

Every week, store manager Regina Barnes, (no, there's no relation) decides which books to stock at Toadstool. ''The key is to know your readers and what they will like," she said, adding that Milford readers buy a lot of children's books and paperback mysteries.

A well-worn green leather sofa and wicker chairs strategically placed among the bookshelves invite people to sit and relax, which is exactly what Anthony Connor of Milford was doing one Sunday morning. Connor said he wasn't looking for anything in particular.

''I don't always have a book in mind when I stop in; I just enjoy looking at the titles," he said. He said that reading is a hobby and that he always enjoys discovering a new book. On this particular morning, Connor was perusing the computer section.

''The store invites browsing," said Vicky Sandin of Brookline. ''It's small, and no one will bother you." Sandin is a longtime patron, as well as a member of the Classics Crowd Book Club.

The Classics Crowd is just one of the book clubs Toadstool offers; others focus on science fiction, fantasy, and literature for children and young adults, and a history group will start soon. There's also Socrates Cafe, a large group that meets for reflection on a variety of topics. A new knitting group, ''Eats, Knits & Leaves," has just started.

Toadstool's events coordinator, Lois Powers, runs the Classics Crowd. ''I do so love creating opportunities for people of the greater community to come together . . . like the classics group," she said. ''From New Boston to Brookline and Bedford to Wilton . . . that is just so cool!"

Once a month, this group of self-proclaimed ''rowdy women" sits in the back of the store, between the women's studies books and the journals, and discusses the selected reading. With the chairs set up in a horseshoe formation on a recent weekday evening, the women, whose ages range from late 30s to early 70s, rehashed the characters and plot of ''Barchester Towers" by Anthony Trollope.

Anne Marie Ashford of New Boston read a passage and discussed women's role in this novel. Participants talked about the hierarchy of the characters in the book and how Trollope was able to weave the characters together to tell this particular story.

Ashford said she started with the club when it began its Jane Austen series. ''I love her books and wanted to hear what other people thought," she said. Even after completing the Austen series, the mother of two young children chose to keep coming.

Throughout the discussion, the women compared Trollope to another 19th-century author, Charles Dickens. All agreed that Trollope was a better writer and storyteller than Dickens. So why was he less known?

''I think it had to do with family status in society," said Bier, the elder of the group.

Lynne Bishop of Bedford agreed and said she, too, enjoys the conversation, adding that she would rather support a local business than a big-box store, a thinly veiled reference to the Barnes & Noble located 15 miles away in Nashua.

Williams is counting on customers like Bishop.

''Every year our business grows," said Williams, who declined to provide specific numbers. ''Would it be more, had the larger stores not moved in? It's hard to say, which is why we try harder to please our customers."

Meg Villeneuve can be reached at megv@globe.com.

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