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Independent and growing

Bookstore's move is an unlikely story

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 12. 2013 1:05AM

Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson's Bookstore, stands in front of the new building that now serves as a retail anchor on South Main Street in Concord. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

CONCORD -- The locally owned bookstore selling ink-on-paper is still a viable enterprise, even in the age of e-books and Amazon. Just ask Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson's Bookstore, which recently moved into an expansive new space in the downtown.

Herrmann has done more than relocate and expand a bookstore that's been a fixture on Main Street since Walter Gibson opened for business in 1898 at the Eagle Hotel. He's partnered with a popular local coffee shop and children's toy store to occupy the entire first floor of a five-story building at 43-45 S. Main St., where the New Hampshire Bindery was located before it was demolished to make room for the new construction.

The combination creates a new anchor for the south end of town, with more than 12,000 square feet to accommodate Gibson's, a second location for the True Brew Barista and a new home for Imagination Village, with its inventory of educational toys, games and puzzles to complement the children's book selection.

Laura Miller, former owner of Imagination Village, now works for Gibson's, managing the youth-oriented inventory and organizing children's and family events. True Brew operates independently with a sublease from Herrmann, although all three operations appear completely integrated to the customer.

Surrounded by piles of books, boxes and office furniture yet to be unpacked in his new office at the back of the store, Herrmann reflected on a hectic first month at the new location and the show of support from customers and the community.

He was working for the family fabric business in New York City in 1994, when he spotted a for-sale ad in the New York Times for Gibson's Bookstore. "I always loved books, and they were always a part of my life," he said. "It felt truer to who I was. It struck me as a good opportunity."

Years of growth

By the time Herrmann took over, the state was coming out of the deep recession of the early 1990s, and entering a period of sustained growth. "After I bought the store, we grew steadily," he said.

In 1998, he moved the store from 29 S. Main St. to 27 S. Main to acquire more space. Having just invested in doubling his space from 2,000 to 4,000 square feet, he learned that a Borders was coming to Concord at Fort Eddy Plaza. That slowed the growth for Gibson's during the ensuing years, but in 2011 Borders went out of business, closing 650 bookstores across the country.

Books-A-Million purchased the Border's franchise in Concord, along with 13 others nationwide, but Gibson's continued to attract a loyal, local clientele, leading to the recent expansion.

The popular narrative that the local bookstore may go the way of the record store or video rental shop is overstated, according to Herrmann, whose business has grown from four employees in 1994 to 21 today.

"The press is a few years behind on this story," he said. "Since Borders closed, independent bookstores have had a big resurgence."

In addition to his own experience, Herrmann points to "indies" such as the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., which recently opened a new location in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; Banks Square Books in Mystic, Conn., which recently doubled in size; and the popular Toadstool Bookshops in Peterborough, Milford and Keene.

He just returned from the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall convention in Providence, R.I., where bestselling author Scott Turow was the headliner. "The event was full of energy and very optimistic," Herrmann said.

A matter of loyalty

The trend toward digital access grew dramatically in the early years, but shows signs of leveling off. Gibson's offers the Kobo, an e-reader widely sold by independent booksellers, and sells digital titles from its website, but Herrmann is convinced that the printed book has enduring appeal given the 563-year history since Gutenberg cranked up the first press.

Consumers were quick to turn away from compact discs with the advent of iTunes because they had little loyalty to CD technology. Books are different. "There's not a single cultural artifact you can name that has more loyalty than the book," Herrmann said.

Beyond the book itself is the bookstore experience, where book lovers can browse and sample the vast inventory, meet a friend over a cup of coffee, join a book club or attend a book signing or reading. By moving some shelves that have been strategically placed on wheels, Gibson's can host as many as 100 people at such events.

"The choices have become more stark and dramatic," Herrmann said. "Do you want to have a bookstore that's part of your community, or stay at home and order online? People are choosing community."

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