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Historic Bookshop Moves to Historic Block

The Bennington BookshopBy Danny Monahan
SBA Vermont District Office

Established in 1749, Vermont’s first chartered town exudes history and charm. It’s the former home and burial site of one of America’s most celebrated poets, Robert Frost. The tallest manmade structure in the state was erected in town to commemorate a major turning point in the Revolutionary War, The Bennington Battle Monument.

In the spring, Bennington updated a historical downtown block when it renovated three buildings constructed in 1870s to restore the area and revitalize its downtown economy. The first phase of the Putnam Block Redevelopment, a $31 million project, is for offices, retail and residential. It’s fitting one of the historic Putnam Block’s first tenants is Vermont’s oldest independent bookstore.

“We wanted to be part of this exciting new development and all that it promises for Bennington. We also wanted to demonstrate our commitment to the town by investing in the new space. We have been thrilled with the response from our regular customers to the new space. We have noticed an increase in traffic, and people are browsing for longer. These are exciting times for Bennington,” said Phil Lewis, co-owner of The Bennington Bookshop.

Established in 1928, Lewis and his partner Linda Foulsham took over the bookshop in 2015. Right after the two purchased it, during a local interview Lewis said he always wanted to buy a bookshop because as he put it ‘a town is not a town without a bookshop.’

Although the two wanted a traditional in-person bookshop, Lewis and Foulsham made two significant changes during the first five years of ownership. First, they created The Book Bank. It is a program people can enroll in to send friends and family a book on a regular basis through the bookshop where books are gift-wrapped and mailed with a card.

“We have Book Bank subscribers all over the country, with a core group in California who offer subscriptions to their friends and families as gifts. That core stemmed from a young girl who wore a Bennington Bookshop T-shirt to her doctor's clinic. He asked her about the T-shirt, and she explained how the Book Bank worked, and things have just grown from there,” said Lewis.

The second major change was modernizing its website. Unlike so many other retail businesses across the country that had to transform their business practices overnight due to the decline of in person shopping when the pandemic began, The Bennington Bookshop already had a robust online presence for several years.

The Bennington Bookshop interior“​We already had an online ordering system in place through our website. Online orders went up dramatically during the first couple of months of closure due to the pandemic, from one or two orders a week to 10 or so a day. The local community really showed their support, buying gift certificates that they could use at a later time, but which gave us some cash flow in the quiet period. We also received increased telephone orders, offering curbside pickup or free delivery in town,” said Lewis.

Like thousands of other Vermont retailers not deemed essential workers, The Bennington Bookshop had to temporally close its doors, but were able to keep its staff of five due to the Paycheck Protection Program.

PPP provided small businesses forgivable loans through the Small Business Administration to prevent mass layoffs and allow employees to stay home to stop the spreading of the disease.

“The Paycheck Protection Program enabled us to keep our employees on the payroll during a period of reduced sales due to the pandemic. It also gave us the security of knowing our employees would be there for us once the pandemic was over and we resumed full-service bookselling,” said Lewis. The Bennington Bookshop recently hired a sixth employee.

As the pandemic slowly fades and customers return to the bookshop, the owners are excited about the store’s 100th anniversary and grateful to the Bennington citizens for supporting the Bennington Bookshop all these years.

“A huge thank you to all the people in the community for their support during these difficult times. It really is appreciated. It's wonderful to be living in a community that so appreciates books,” said Lewis.  

 

Company Name: 
The Bennington Bookshop