In an increasingly digital world, the print industry is thriving in Bethel.
There are four bookstores in the downtown area. Rainy Day Paperback is located at 81 Greenwood Avenue, just up the road from the Relay Bookhouse, at 102 Greenwood Avenue, and around the corner from Camelot Toy Soldiers & Books at 14 P.T. Barnum Square. On the other end of Greenwood Avenue, Byrd's Books is located above Molten Java at 213 Greenwood Avenue.
So why are Bethel book stores surviving and even thriving in an era of giant box retail stores, rampant online book sales, and perhaps most threatening of all; the increasing popularity and availability of digital books?
The answer to that question, said John Salvatore Passiglia, the owner of Camelot Toy Soldiers & Books, is that small book stores provide a personal touch big stores do not. He said that he often makes recommendations to costumers about books they might like.
“[At a big store] they can tell you exactly where the book is, if they have it, but they don't know anything about what is in the books.”
Personality is on display in abundance at his store. There is a suit of armor, used books overflow the shelves and there are fantasy and science fiction board games for sale as well as collectible toy soldiers – some of which date back to the first World War.
He first opened a Bethel book store in the mid 1980s, then moved to Ridgefield for several years before settling into his current location, on P.T. Barnum Square, just over a decade ago. Passiglia said he's happy Bethel has so many bookstores.
“The more bookstores the better,” he said, “ because in this kind of business, competition is not competition. It's good because we can send people to other store who we think may have the selection they're looking for.”
He added, that all the different book stores have a specialty, although he carries almost every genre, he specializes in history and military history.
Nora O'Neil, owner of Rainy Day Paperback Exchange, agreed with Passiglia that the more book stores in town the merrier.
“After you get a few, the town starts to become a destination just for that,” she said. “There's the diamond district in New York. Who would think you could have that many diamond [stores] in one place?”
She added that there's a town in Scotland of about 2000 people that has more than 30 bookstores, “they went and recruited bookstores from other towns,” to became a book buying destination O'Neil said.
O'Neil's specialty is paperbacks in all genres and children's books. She does a great deal of online sales through the store's website.
Bobbi Jo Beers, executive director of Bethel's Chamber of Commerce, said that the amount of book stores in town is helping to make Bethel a Mecca for book lovers. She said the owners of these stores help you find things you didn't even know you were looking for.
“If you know what you're looking for, online stores are good but when you're just sort of browsing – I know my mother in-law loves to go to them because she just finds the weirdest, rarest books that she would never think of picking up,” she said. “I think she picked up [a book on the ] history of lingerie in one of them. It's a great coffee table book and conversation piece. You would never Google 'the history of lingerie' but she found it and thought it was just the coolest thing.”
Alice Hutchinson, the owner of Byrd's Books, is the new kid on the Bethel book block. She celebrated the grand opening of her store in March. Byrd's Books is the only book store in town that sells exclusively new (not used) books. She stocks her books based on an alternative best-selling list that is created from feedback from independent book stores across the country. Though Hutchinson carries many regular best-sellers, she also stocks some lesser known new books.
“We don't need to be reading the same 40 books throughout the country,” she said.
In addition, she specializes in titles from Bethel authors and Connecticut authors. There is even a section devoted to children's books written and illustrated by local folks. Many of these local authors come to the store for regular book signings and book discussions. This Sunday Byrd’s Books will host Connecticut author Nan Rossiter at 1 p.m. Rossiter will be discussing her recent book “Words Get In the Way” and her brand-new book “The Fo’c'sle.”
Hutchinson is is not afraid to address the invisible (or this case digital) elephant in the room – which is the adverse effect that digital book sales (on devices like Amazon's Kindle or Apples iPad) can potentially have on stores like hers.
“To answer the obvious question, I do think bookstores can coexist [with digital books] and they do,” she said, “most people have a combination of both.”