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Business profile: Monroe Street Books

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Posted on August 13, 2018 |
By James Finn



MonroeStreetBooks5392.jpg
FOUNDER DICK CHODKOWSKI, left, and staffer Timm Williams have 100,000 books for sale on the shelves behind them at Monroe Street Books on Route 7 North in Middlebury. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, they have 60,000 more volumes in storage. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Most people who drive past the inconspicuous bookstore located two miles north of Middlebury on Route 7 would never guess what lies within.

“When people come in, they’re blown away,” said Timm Williams, who works in the store daily. “They say, ‘I’ve driven by for years and I never realized,’ and then they come in and they’re hooked.”

Monroe Street Books, the self-proclaimed largest used bookstore in Vermont, boasts a collection of 100,000 used volumes on its shelves and another 60,000 in its storage basement. The store’s packed, ceiling-high shelves offer something for everyone, from their hundreds of science-fiction novels to glossy fashion photography volumes to the many vintage posters sealed in plastic bags that hang on the walls.

For Williams and Dick Chodkowski, who owns the store with his wife Flanzy, an appreciation for the material process of book buying lies at the heart of their work. “To me and to Dick, coming into a store and being able to hold the book in your hands is the whole experience,” Williams said. The store, founded in 1992, operates under the motto “Browsing is arousing.”

Recently, though, the used book buyers’ oasis has had to alter its foundational approach a bit. For the past several years, the Chodkowskis’ operation has shifted toward a dual in-store and online sales approach meant to help the operation survive a changing booksellers’ landscape that has pushed many sellers towards online platforms, and scores more out of the business entirely.

“It’s not easy anymore,” Dick Chodkowski said of what it takes to maintain the brick-and-mortar side of the business. “A lot of bookstores are closing. Everyone shops online now, and running a bookstore takes a lot of work.”

According to Chodkowski, the mail-order portion of the store’s operation now makes up close to half of its total annual sales. Williams manages the majority of Monroe Street’s shipping orders, most of which are submitted through the store’s website. Monroe Street also distributes through major retailers such as Amazon, AbeBooks and others. Recently, keeping up with the technical processes required to distribute material online has been one of the main challenges of maintaining the operation for Chodkowski.

“We have to keep track of these books, enter them in a database and keep track of online sales now,” he said. “Updates in software, certain files you have to know, how to upload to different sites ... there’s a lot of technical stuff involved. It can be a challenge to keep up with it all.”

Simultaneously, keeping up with major sellers who do much of their business online is no easy task. Buyers who come into the store are often deterred by the prices of certain volumes when they discover that they can find the same books on Monroe Street’s shelves for lower prices on sites such as Amazon. “People will come around with their iPhone and look up a book online,” Chodkowski said. “It’ll be a $10 book in the store, and then they’ll go online and see that they can get it for five or six.”

But even in an era where online sales reign supreme, there are both charms and advantages that come with buying a book directly from the shelves of a store like Monroe Street. For example, buyers often end up unhappy with a product that might not be what was promised online.

“The quality of the online product may not be what ends up being received,” Williams said. “Here, you know what you’re getting. You have the book right there in your hand.”

Customers who come into the store still form a substantial part of Monroe Street’s operation, and Chodkowski and Williams love when new visitors come in off the highway. The store has its share of regulars from around Addison County, as well as those who come to Vermont from other states to vacation during the summer months and return to the store. Chodkowski said that traffic increases when conferences at Bread Loaf and summer Language Schools at Middlebury College are in session.

“In the summer, a lot of people come into the brick-and-mortar store,” Chodkowski said. “They like to browse around, because you come across things unexpectedly that you normally wouldn’t find when you’re seeking out a specific book online.”

Chodkowski and Williams agreed that they would like to see more Middlebury College students in their store.

The original Monroe Street Books opened in 1992 and was located on its namesake street, in a small barn behind the Chodkowskis’ home, after they moved to Middlebury from Los Angeles. Dick Chodkowski had worked in advertising prior to making the move and had a vast book collection that he had accumulated as a result of his interest in graphic design, fashion and photography. The bookstore moved to its current location on Route 7, formerly a garage for 18-wheelers, when the space opened up in 2004.

Some of the books from Chodkowski’s original collection still sit on the shelves at Monroe Street today. The store’s collection is replenished largely through donations, and Chodkowski also offers store credit for some volumes. Books generally cost between $1 and $20, with the occasional rarity priced higher — a signed copy of Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies” goes for $25, for example. The store’s inventory is incredibly broad, with well-stocked sections on subjects from Latin American history to track and field to nautical non-fiction.

Although running a brick-and-mortar operation continues to be a challenge in the face of ever-growing competition from online sellers, Monroe Street Books continues to operate smoothly. Chodkowski says that he doesn’t read as much as he used to, but his love of books still pushes him to keep the operation running.

“You do it because you love it, and you hope that you end up making a little money at it at the end of the day,” he said.

Monroe Street Books operates seven days a week (including holidays), 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday-Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

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