A new, community-driven bookstore opens in Brandon

KATE BRIGGS, LEFT, Gary Meffe and Barbara Ebling lean on the railing in front of the new home of The Bookstore in the Briggs Carriage building on Conant Square in Brandon. The store is co-owned by Ebling and Phoenix Books owner Mike DeSanto, and the business model features a citizen advisory committee and a community-supported certificate program.

I think when you drive through a town and you see an independent bookstore, you think ‘This is a classy little town.'
— Kate Briggs

BRANDON — It takes a village to do great things, and in Brandon that means establishing a new, independent bookstore.
Former Briggs Carriage Bookstore co-owner Barbara Ebling and Phoenix Books owner Mike DeSanto have teamed up with the help of a community advisory council to open The Bookstore. The shop, which opened Dec. 4, occupies, of all places, the first floor of the Briggs Carriage building at 8 Conant Square across from the former Mobil station.
That’s where Ebling’s first bookstore venture was born years ago, before she and husband, Matthew Gibbs, moved Briggs Carriage Bookstore to 16 Park St. in 2003, opening the Ball & Chain Café on the second floor. The store enjoyed several years of success, but family commitments and a narrow profit margin led the couple to close the store in January 2012.
“It was too big,” Ebling said. “The space was too big, and we were trying to do too much.”
Brandon wasn’t without a bookstore for long. In May 2014, Steve and Melissa Errick opened the Book & Leaf bookstore just down the block at 10 Park St.
But the store was not designed to make money, rather a hobby and labor of love for the Erricks, who live in Long Island, N.Y., but fell in love with Brandon while shopping around for the right bookstore space. In February of this year, the store closed and that building was put up for sale.

Ebling had been working at Book & Leaf for a year at that point, at first just filling in part-time, but one employee left, then another, and Ebling found herself running the shop. One day last August, Ebling found herself in the store with owner Steve Errick and local sculptor and writer B. Amore.
“We weren’t sure if the new buyer of the building had a tenant for the downstairs store space,” Ebling explained. “B. and I were talking and we thought, ‘Maybe we could keep it alive.’ So we went down to Center Street Bar and had some wine and pizza and said, ‘OK, what do we do? How can we make this happen?’”
Renting the Book & Leaf space turned out to be too expensive, but the seed of an idea was born. That idea grew exponentially when Amore thought to call Mike DeSanto, owner of Phoenix Books in Rutland, Burlington and Essex, and the Yankee Book Shop in Woodstock.
Amore founded the Carving Studio in West Rutland and was behind the effort to produce and place the marble relief carving “Rudyard Kipling in Vermont” in front of the Phoenix Books store on Center Street in Rutland.
“Without B., I would have been too shy. I wouldn’t have done that,” Ebling said.
That one phone call became the lynch pin of The Bookstore.

What Ebling and Amore had in mind was a community-supported bookstore, and brainstormed about who else in town would be a good addition to the organizing group. The advisory council for The Bookstore includes Gary and Nancy Meffe, Christie Gahagan, Amore, Christine O’Leary-Eldred, Kate Briggs, Steve and Jenny Beck and Eve Beglarian.
The group held a planning meeting this fall and invited DeSanto.
“He liked what he saw and what he heard,” Ebling said. “He liked that I was involved and had experience. He’s committed to keeping independent bookstores alive in Vermont.”
DeSanto was in and invested in the idea. He had his limited liability corporation, Ebling started her own, and the two agreed to partner with an eye to a community-supported bookstore under the umbrella of Phoenix Book Brandon, operating the business as The Bookstore.
“I know a thing or two,” Ebling said. “I don’t know it all, but now I also have someone I can call and say, ‘Mike, what do I do? Help!’ and it’s so valuable. He gives me perspective.”

Enter Kate Briggs. After months of searching for another retail space in town, Briggs, who owns the Briggs Carriage building, thought perhaps her own property could serve the needs of The Bookstore. The space on the first floor that until recently had been occupied by Segment 6 engineering firm Dubois & King for the last two years would work.
She drove a hard bargain, insisting on a rental price unheard of these days: $1 a month, for the first year.
“Frankly, I’m doing this because it’s incredibly good for the town,” Briggs said. “I think when you drive through a town and you see an independent bookstore, you think ‘This is a classy little town.’ I think it makes a difference and will enhance the value of everything. The combination of Barbara and Mike, who knew what they were doing, who thought it could be done, then I certainly felt it could be done. And I really felt that rent was critical.”
The 1,000-square-foot space features good light and Ebling is thrilled.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “It’s just a great space.”

No one operates in a vacuum in small towns, especially in Brandon, where neighbors are known for helping each other, businesses are altruistic and volunteers are as plentiful as the water in the Neshobe River.
So it should come as no surprise that the Erricks donated much of the shelving, some fixtures and even leftover stock to Ebling and her group for the new store, saving them thousands of dollars.
As for the community-supported aspect of the business model, the group came up with a Community Supported Bookstore Certificate Program. Similar to Community Supported Agriculture, or a CSA, patrons buy a $500 certificate and get an equivalent credit on books bought at the store. They can redeem up to 10 percent per month and no more than $1,000 in a calendar year. They also get 20% off books and 10% off other merchandise for the life of the certificate.
If 20 people buy certificates, that’s $10,000. If 50 people buy certificates, that’s $25,000.
“I think everybody is really excited about this,” Briggs said.
“It’s a nice tapestry that’s weaving itself together,” Ebling added.
For his part, DeSanto said he believes in The Bookstore venture and that’s why he’s here.
“I’ve been in the business for 25 years and there’s very little I haven’t had to cope with,” he said.
DeSanto has varied business models in each of his stores. The Rutland store began after the city approached DeSanto with grant money and 40 citizens who each pledged to buy a $1,000 certificate.
“It’s one thing for me to put in money, it’s one thing for Barbara to put on money,” he said. “The third leg of this is community support. By getting the community involved at the front end, it becomes much easier to move forward.”
On Dec. 4, the first day of Brandon’s annual Moonlight Madness holiday shopping event, The Bookstore opened for business in the Briggs Carriage building. DeSanto is fast becoming a fan of Brandon.
“This will be the most unique town I’ve been involved in,” he said. “It’s a small town, but when I compare its footprint to other towns, it has a strong retail core now that the road construction is complete. It takes a lot of nurturing and care to keep these things alive.”
He’s also a fan of his business partner.
“The future is just wide open and I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for Barbara,” he said. “She and I felt that if we make The Bookstore a success, it would be a reflection of Brandon’s success in the future.”

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