To see Norwich Bookstore owners Liza Bernard and Penny McConnel in action, you would think they are fraternal twin sisters. The pair move and speak in harmony; finish each other’s sentences, encourage, laugh, compliment, and prod – the way only the best of friends can do.
One would never guess McConnel and Bernard’s ages of 82 and 67, respectively. Perhaps bookselling is a tonic that keeps people young, witty, and vibrant. But every story has an eventual ending, and thoughts of retiring have crossed their minds, especially in the past three years.
And so, through the bookseller’s industry listserv, they sought new owners. Although Bernard and McConnel received numerous inquiries over the years, not one encompassed all the attributes necessary to preserve the spirit of the store. Bernard and McConnel took their time. They did not want to back themselves into a corner of panicked, last-minute decision-making.
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“Everything came from nothing,” remarked McConnel. In 1993, with no existing structure, they found the property and built the bookstore literally from the ground up. They opened their doors in August of 1994.
“It was a very exciting day!” said Bernard. After two years of meticulous planning, they nervously anticipated the day. They feared the worst; that no one would attend the opening or if they did, the store’s inventory would lack their desired book.
Bernard and McConnel’s bookstore motto is “Thoughtfully chosen books for everyone in the family.” They wanted to make sure they lived up to that.
“We had two part-time employees at the time: Karen Washburn who, with her husband Murray, even helped us set up the shelving, and Rae Schmertz, then a reading specialist at several Upper Valley schools.”
“The day was busy, busy, and lots of fun!” said Bernard. “We were warmly welcomed by the community – curious about what we had to offer.”
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Running a small business is enjoyable but also comes with daily challenges. At first, it was how to use a computer for point-of-sale transactions and inventory. But by 2007, they adopted technology that allowed them to offer online browsing and sales. Then came “big-box” booksellers like Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon. Still, the pair did not fold.
“It’s personal,” said Bernard. “We are a part of people’s families.” A personal touch cannot be created with a company that does not know your name, does not know what you like to read, or what to recommend – Bernard and McConnel do. They have seen families grow and expand. They have helped children who are now parents themselves. They developed their small business knowledge and their bookselling expertise to create a full-fledged, full-service bookstore that offers all genres of books, e-books, audiobooks, book signings, events, and something intangible.
“Part of our success is that we love partnering and co-hosting events with other organizations: schools, libraries, Dartmouth’s creative writing department,” said Bernard. “Bookselling is a very collaborative business.” “Yes,” chimes in McConnel with a twinkle in her eye, “we’re competitive but in a friendly way.”
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And then COVID hit. In 27 years, they had never shut their doors for an extended period of time. They had to immediately evolve the business to continue serving the community and do what they love best: talking books with their customers. They instituted curbside pickup, became personal shoppers, walked through the store with a customer on the phone, describing books, and taking orders. Their typical in-person, event-a-week schedule moved to weekly Zoom events.
But there is an upside: “During COVID, people realized how much they relied on – and therefore had to support – local, independent businesses,” said Bernard. “And how connected we all are,” added McConnel.
Finally, last summer, they met Emma Nichols and Sam Kaas, independent booksellers from Seattle, Washington. Nichols and Kaas were not looking to tear anything down or make massive changes with their acquisition. They wanted to build upon Norwich Bookstore’s strong foundation of community, quality, and care. Bernard and McConnel felt a kismet connection with the pair via an aligned vision for their store. They found everything they were looking for in successors: experienced, young, energetic booksellers with technical and digital acumen.
Just as Bernard and McConnel have grown the bookstore’s roots, built their business, and adapted with the times, so, too, will they intentionally pass on their roles to Nichols and Kaas: a turning of the page of a beloved book.
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When asked if meeting so many famous authors and hosting notable events stood out as historic moments, both Bernard and McConnel shook their heads. “No, not at all,” said Bernard, “those were magical events but only for an hour or so per week.” What they will never forget are the personal interactions with customers – their treasured extended family at the Norwich Bookstore.
While Bernard and McConnel appear to be the binding that has held the bookstore together for 27 years, they would argue that they are not the reason for their bookstore’s longevity and success: “The reason we have survived as long as we have isn’t because of anything we’ve done,” said Bernard. “It’s because of this community – our customers.” Every single customer, in ways big and small, contributed to the story of the Norwich Bookstore.
“It’s time,” said McConnel, “Not only for us but for the bookstore to have new, young people to take over for another 27 years.”