Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Page Turns at Vermont Book Shop

For lovers of books and music, the Vermont Book Shop has always been a kind of temple. Entering it was like going to church – the high tin ceiling, the walls lined with books straight down to the floor, bursting record bins, the bleary northern light leaking through windows in the back.

And most of all, the creaking floor.

Take a single step inside the big front door and the old floor would give a reassuring squeak. God was in his heaven, there was order in the universe, and inside the four walls of this old emporium there were treasures to be discovered: a new book by a favorite author, a long-out-of-print jazz album, or a greeting from an friend you hadn't seen in weeks.

And so it was with great trepidation that many of us contemplated owner Becky Dayton's announcement, earlier this year, that she would be remodeling the temple.

Wasn't it enough, we aging worshippers moaned, that some of the shelves had already been rearranged? And where had all the vinyl albums gone?

That long row of nonfiction had been moved, too – the gauntlet that ran down the center of the store as you walked in. Why, some of the most turgid tomes in American history had sat collecting dust on those shelves for years. Herbert Marcuse, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky had ruled that province for years. Wasn't that worth something?

You could spend a mere 10 minutes amid the nonfiction and catch up on all that was wrong with America, just by reading the dust jackets. And then you could wend your way to the back for a novel or an album and be reminded of all that was right with the world.

For many years of the VBS -- when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the compact disc had not yet been invented -- there was a clerk in the back whose every working day was devoted to tending the music section. The bins were full of LP's by obscure bluesmen -- Blind Lemon Jefferson seemed to be a particular favorite -- but you could also find the latest rock treasures. The Stones' original “Sticky Fingers” LP – the one with the pulldown zipper on the front cover that many stores refused to carry – was on especially prominent display.

* * *

Those of us who came of age in the Seventies, it turns out, had little idea what an innovation that old music section was.

Dike Blair, who with his wife started the store in in 1949, recalls that at the time they opened, “the record store in town sold only 78's, so we put in LP's.”

The shop first opened in the Deanery building at 5 College Street without enough books to fill the space – so “we partitioned off the back third and used it as a picture gallery for local artists.”

It wasn't long, though, before there were “many too many” books. The Blairs relocated to the old A&P store at 38 Main, where – along with Calvi's, the drugstore, the Lazarus department store, Farrell's and Ski Haus – they helped form a kind of Hall of Fame of post-war Middlebury commerce.

Heading toward the back of the store, one inevitably confronted the bullpen island where the cash register and sales staff resided. The cast of staff characters changed a bit over the years, but very slowly. (Grant Novak, in fact, has worked at the store for 30 years, most of them as buyer and manager.)

In front of the large sales cubicle, a shelf held the latest copy of The New York Review of Each Other's Books. And it often seemed as if Dike Blair was always there, even after his retirement and the store's sale to Laura and John Scott in 1993. One could still envision Mr. Blair, bespectacled in his inevitable bow tie and suspenders and pensively smoking his pipe, a monarch surveying his grand little kingdom.

* * *

Sentimentalist that I am, this spring as the days approached before the VBS would temporarily close for renovation, I made a point of taking photos of the old stacks and aisles. I wanted to be sure I could hold on to How It Used to Be.

Looking to the future, I was prepared for the worst. But I should have known better.

Yes, the creaky old floor is gone. Too worn to refinish, it's been replaced by an attractive carpet. For oldtimers, Becky Dayton points out that there's still a spot where you can step and hear the gratifying squeak of the old floor underneath.

The store is far less cluttered, promising fewer surprises but easier to navigate. There are places other than the dusty floor to sit and contemplate one's next purchase, or just read through a favorite Frost poem pulled from the Vermont section.

Becky paid her staff through the entire July renovation, and she kept the doors open herself when the last Harry Potter novel arrived. That fine old tin ceiling got a fresh coat of paint (“champagne purlescent gold-beige” for those of you keeping score at home). During the blessedly quick process of renovation, there emerged forgotten walls of brick and A&P green tile.
The windows at the back were opened to the sky, and multiple layers of paint were scraped off the old oaken moldings. The crew even discovered a long forgotten fourth window on the west wall, which had been buried for decades behind a bookshelf.

True, the music section and its excellent folk collection are much diminished – an even larger loss in view of John Vincent's decision this summer to close his In the Alley shop and its similarly strong collection. But fine albums by folkies like Richard Shindell and John Stewart had languished in the bins of both stores. There's little money selling CDs in the age of the iPod.

In fact, there's damn little money these days in bookstores, period. The owners of the Briggs Carriage Bookstore, in Brandon, and the former owners of the defunct Deerleap Book, in Bristol, would readily confirm that.

So why would someone like Becky Dayton commit so many of her waking hours to reviving a bookstore that has yet to generate its first dollar in profit since she bought it in 2005?

Along with the other smalltown heroes who keep downtown alive, she's on a bit of a mission.
“It's very important that a good small town have a bookstore,” she says. “It's the Third place, after home and work.

“For some people, the Third Place is a pub or a coffeeshop. For others, it's a bookstore.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I grew up in Middlebury, in the 50s and 60s, attended the college for a short while. Thanks for this piece about Mr. Blair's store. I spent many hours flipping through the albums and sitting in the listening booth. Was that still there in your time? Anyway, I enjoyed your reverie. It's mine too.


B Bigelow


(My father was in the philosophy department)

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