Nothing beats the inside line from a bookseller – how else can you get the scoop on the best books that are hitting shelves soon or the old favorites you’d do well to discover or revisit?
By Alexis Neuville
In this series, learn directly from booksellers themselves about reads they’re devouring, titles to watch out for, and what makes their store a cornerstone of their town. In this installment, “locally owned and fiercely independent” Bank Square Books is the shop we’re cozying up to, thanks to the candid recommendations from owner Annie Philbrick.
How did you get into working at Bank Square Books?
My son, David, now 29, worked here as a teenager and told me one Christmas that the current owner was thinking of selling the store because his wife got a job in Los Angeles at the Getty Museum. The owner thought about commuting once a month but when I came in to pick up David’s check, I said, “If you are selling the store, I might be interested.” So, six months later, three of us (all women) bought Bank Square Books.
We knew almost nothing. I worked there a couple days a week, from April to June, so I ended up as the adult buyer. David said to me, after we bought it, “You know Mom, it’s not just selling books. It’s really a complicated business, but I think you can do it.” And here I am, 12 years later.
How does your bookstore compare to others? What’s its character?
I actually own two bookstores now – Bank Square Books in Mystic, CT, and Savoy Bookshop and Cafe in Westerly, RI. They are both independent general bookshops but have entirely different characters: Bank Square Books is located in a coastal tourist town, and has been in the same location for almost 30 years. The Mystic store is about 4,500 square feet of retail space and was originally a gas station in the 1950s, so the physical shape is pretty funky.
Savoy Bookshop & Cafe was born in July 2014 when we were approached by a philanthropist who couldn’t imagine a town without a library or a bookstore. (A bookstore had recently closed in Westerly–a residential town with a large summer population in Watch Hill and the Rhode Island beaches.) He said, “I have a space in an old hotel, so if I build you a bookshop and it doesn’t cost you anything, will you run it?” How could I not say yes? So, in March 2016, we opened a beautiful, classic bookshop with a cafe that is reminiscent of 1920s New York or London.
Which book do you recommend most, and why?
Mostly fiction as that is what I read most. This past year, I recommended Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and a classic–Follow Your Heart by Susan Tamaro. Also, one of my favorite authors from the 1980s (yes, I’m dating myself!) is Laurie Colwin. We sell a ton of her books, as all are my staff picks, and many have not heard of her. A couple of Christmas’s ago, HarperCollins put out a book by Eleanor Roosevelt called You Learn By Living. It was a staff pick of mine and we sold hundreds. It’s a gem of a book about how to get the most out of life.
What is your favorite section/shelf of your store, and why?
Fiction and mostly our staff picks. I love seeing staff picks at both stores, as they are so diverse.
What is the craziest thing that has happened while you were working at the store?
When we were flooded by Tropical Storm Sandy in Fall 2012. It was a nightmare and closed Bank Square Books for three weeks. There were five or six inches of brackish water all throughout the store, as the tide came up the river and had nowhere to go but into the store. Someone was kayaking down Main Street. We had to replace the floor and the walls after moving all of the books, fixtures, computers, everything out of the store within 48 hours, or else we would have lost it all. I still have PTSD when the tide is high and the rainfall is over three or four inches.
Which book has made the greatest impact on you in your life, and why?
Follow Your Heart by Susan Tamaro. It was given to me as a gift when my life was in a rough spot, and it really helped me focus and look forward rather than behind. The story is coming from an Italian grandmother to her granddaughter about a past love that she let go when she was young and the regret she lived with. Basically, the point is don’t let something go if you really believe in it, so follow your heart.
What’s the biggest trend you’ve noticed in the past 3-6 months, in terms of what folks are coming into the store to request or what they’re seeking recommendations on?
Not political books for sure right now, except Fire and Fury during the winter. [People] want something to read to take their mind off of what is happening in our country and something to disappear with. It might be a bestseller, might be a classic. One of my booksellers says that horror, sci-fi and thrillers are out because people don’t want to be scared anymore. Our philosophy section seems to be cleaned out after a weekend. Good commercial fiction, beach reads, but that might be regional.
Both shops tend to sell a wide variety of everything. After the long list for the Man Booker Prize was announced, people came looking for those books and were disappointed that we didn’t have them all, and didn’t understand when we told them some were not yet published in the U.S.
What’s the biggest surprise about working at a bookstore, and why?
How much I love it. When you put a book into someone’s hand, it’s like giving them a gift. We love being part of a community and giving people a safe and nurturing place to be. After the election, we had a visit from Hillary Clinton at Savoy, and she gave everyone such a gracious part of her that the visit renewed some faith in humanity.
What makes a great bookstore, and why?
Creating a sense of community and a place where people feel they belong and can experience human interaction and discovery. We try to curate our sections carefully to provide something for everyone to read. Kids come for story time and we host a number of author events, sometimes five a week, to bring authors to our customers and to support the literary community.
Physical or ebook?
Absolutely print. I really don’t like digital.
Last great book you’ve read?
Oh man, I read 4-5 books a week, if not more, so this is really hard. And most of them are not [yet] published as they are galleys. Deb [Futter, Celadon co-publisher]’s two on her [upcoming] list–Cape May and The Silent Patient–are fabulous! Warlight by Michael Ondaatje was slower than I usually read, but the sentences are so gorgeous and eloquent. Circe by Madeline Miller and The Silence of Girls by Pat Barker made me want to read The Odyssey again.
Favorite thing in or about your town?
Being part of a community and being able to ride my bike to work.
My childhood library, as I have fond memories of going there in June, getting ten books, and going to the island where we went every summer. It is the University District Branch of the Seattle Public Library system, one of those old granite and marble libraries that echoed stillness and smelled like books.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.