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Some N.H. Independent Booksellers Say Business Is Booming

NHPR spoke with Laura Cummings, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway, and Tom Holbrook, co-owner of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, about their businesses.

Independent bookstores are beloved institutions in many communities, but their fate was uncertain when the pandemic hit. After they’ve had time to adapt, some New Hampshire bookstores say they’re making a comeback.

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NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Laura Cummings, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway and Tom Holbrook, co-owner of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth.

Laura Cummings and Tom Holbrook’s Summer Book Recommendations:

  • Once There Were Wolves, Charlotte McConaghy

    • Laura Cummings says, “It's about reintroducing wolves to northern Scotland, and I just think she is a writer to watch.”
  • Redemptor: Raybearer Book 2,Jordan Ifueko

    • Tom Holbrook says, “I cannot wait to read it because [Raybearer Book 1] was one of my favorite books. It's young adult, but it reads a lot like adult fantasy and it just had so much going on for it and I loved it.”


Rick Ganley: This is Morning Edition from NHPR, I'm Rick Ganley. Independent bookstores are beloved institutions in many communities, and when the pandemic hit, their fate was uncertain. Now some bookstores say they're making a comeback. We're joined by two independent booksellers here in New Hampshire, Laura Cummings, owner of White Birch Books in North Conway, and Tom Holbrook, co-owner of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth. Good morning to you both.

Tom Holbrook: Good morning.

Laura Cummings: Good morning.

Rick Ganley: Hey, Laura. At the beginning of the pandemic, bookstores weren't considered essential and had to close their doors. How has White Birch Books been affected in those first few months?

Laura Cummings: From my perspective, those first few months were pretty bleak. I would spend the nights kind of staring at my ceiling because when the doors were closed I kind of sat alone in my fairly large bookstore, kind of going quietly crazy in the semi-dark, in the semi-cold, because I was so cheap to turn up the heat. And answering the very few phone calls and going to the door and fulfilling the very few orders and wondering what was going to become of us.

Rick Ganley: So how are things faring now for you at this stage in the pandemic? You've been open more than a year now. How are you faring?

Laura Cummings: Very well. We're very lucky in that we are in a resort community, and we have just seen so many people up here and that has really driven an incredible increase of traffic to our area. It's kind of been crazy.

Rick Ganley: Yeah. Tom, you know, you're in a vacation spot, as well, or a tourist destination being in Portsmouth. How did you have to change how you sold books to stay in business during the pandemic?

Tom Holbrook: My story is similar to White Birch's. We were closed. We were closed till mid-June, but we were working hard during that time. I was fortunate or wise enough to already have a robust web solution in place, but nobody used it very much, and that changed. We went from doing one or two online orders a week to doing, you know, ten, fifteen a day, sometimes more. A lot of those included pick up at the store. A lot of them were ship-outs. I also got in my Prius and drove all over town delivering books to people's mailboxes. And we were able to actually keep up our sales, but it took two, three, four times more work.

One of the great things that happened was, I think people had a sudden realization that they were buying everything from one place online, and the person who owns that company was spending it on rocket ships and they knew their local businesses need help. And so we actually had such a surge. And we're really grateful for that because, you know, it saw us through. And now we're doing better than we did before the pandemic because I think people have refocused their attention to supporting local.

Rick Ganley: That's interesting. You are doing better than you did prior to 2020, Laura. How about your sales? How are they compared to previous years?

Laura Cummings: I can echo what Tom said exactly. And the same thing with ordering and supporting local, the call kind of went out to start supporting local. And I think people were so stir-crazy and stuck on their computers. And, you know, we need to get out to support our local stores. And then I think some people were like, hey, those people are really fun and nice and they have personalities and we're going to keep doing that. And then it became a habit and a habit that they have continued to do. And I again, will echo we are doing better than beforehand.

Rick Ganley: Can you identify a particular demographic that's coming in a particular age group? Who's coming in, who's browsing, who's buying and what are they buying?

Tom Holbrook: It's morphed and changed. One of the things that helped us get through the downtime, actually, was the rise of attention on the social justice movement and racism. And that spawned deep interest in actual learning, which is hard to do sometimes from the television. People look to books, and there were a good number of books that just topped the bestseller list for the entire summer of 2020. And that was a huge boon to us.

That was an add-on to what we would normally do because it wasn't really taking away from other things that we sell like fiction and mystery. It was just an added layer of sales. I would say that that has died down a bit this spring into summer, and right now sort of hand in hand with the tourism and the getting out and doing things is our customers are looking for lots of mysteries and fiction and entertainment.

Rick Ganley: Laura, do you think that this current demand will continue or are you concerned that it might be a bubble?

Laura Cummings: So I have always been an austerity-based bookseller. And I have been a fear-based bookseller, basically. Always looking around the corner for when the bottom's going to drop out. And I am looking for when this is going to end. And just recently, I feel like I am constantly giving myself pep talks where I'm saying just enjoy it, just ride it right now. Because to be honest, this is the most enjoyment I have had.

I mean, I love my job and I love selling books and I love my customers. But it's hard at the end of the day to make ends meet. You don't, you know, the only way you get rich selling books is if you're rich to begin with, I guess. But this has been so much fun, and I'm trying not to look too far ahead and just really enjoy it while it happens.

Rick Ganley: I want to ask you both, lastly, before I let you go about recommendations, what are you reading and what are you recommending to people? Let's start with you, Laura.

Laura Cummings: The book that I am really hot on right now is Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. It just came out, I think this week. It's her second novel, and it's about reintroducing wolves to northern Scotland. And I just think she is a writer to watch.

Rick Ganley: Tom, what about you?

Tom Holbrook: Last summer, I read a book called Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. And the sequel to that, Redemptor, just came out this week, and I cannot wait to read it because it was one of my favorite books. It's a young adult, but it read a lot like adult fantasy and it just had so much going on for it and I loved it. So I can't wait to read the second one, which just came out.

Rick Ganley: Two good recommendations to end your summer with. Laura Cummings is the owner of White Birch Books in North Conway, and Tom Holbrook is the co-owner of RiverRun Books in Portsmouth. Thank you both so much.

Laura Cummings: Thank you.

Tom Holbrook: Thank you.

Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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