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America's quirky capital of books

How tiny Montpelier, Vt., supports three independent bookstores – one with the requisite mascot, Veruca the tortoise. 

By Andrew AverillCorrespondent / March 17, 2013



Montpelier, Vt.

Anders Shemholm, age 11, is walking down Main Street in this Vermont town in shorts and an unzipped jacket even though a nor'easter has just left its callous calling card – 10 inches of snow.

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No matter. He seems oblivious to his surroundings as he looks down at the object in his hand, which, surprisingly, isn't a texting device.

It's a book.

Anders is an avid reader – he goes through four books a month – and says there are only two things that keep him from reading more. "Well, yeah, I have to sleep and eat on occasion," he says.

Anders may be unusual for a preteen but not for Montpelierites: People here like their books.

The nation's smallest capital city is home to three appropriately quirky bookstores – not a huge number, unless you consider that the population is only 7,000. Montpelier residents covet bookstores the way San Franciscans do their sourdough bread and Denverites their mile-high air.

"I don't know if there's another town of this size that can support three bookstores. You can't replicate it," says Rob Kasow, who, along with his wife, Claire Benedict, owns Bear Pond Books and Rivendell Books. "There are towns of 200,000 that can't support even one, but this place has three."

These are not big commercial stores he's talking about. Local residents have long resisted chain-stores in their downtown, which includes McDonald's and other fast-food joints. These are independent bookstores, in every sense of the word.

To succeed in Montpelier, you have to know your audience. For The Book Garden, that means plenty of nonfiction books on how to raise chickens, forage for wild mushrooms, and shape metal like a postmodern blacksmith.

The cozy store, with rabbit-warren bookshelves, also has a sizable collection of graphic novels in the back, and hosts a weekly fantasy card game tournament.

"Indie sellers have to find a niche to sell to," says Rick Powell, owner of The Book Garden. "I cater to these folks."

Montpelierites are primed to seek this type of catering. They hold twice as many secondary degrees as the national average, and would rather stay near home than travel – a plurality choose to live no more than 10 minutes from where they work.

"Montpelier has smart people and smart kids. That little kid?" Mr. Powell says, pointing at a young customer. "That kid reads Hemingway. He's probably 10 years old."

The youngster then asks Powell if he has that Stephen King book about a man who escapes from jail – "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redeption."

Bear Pond and Rivendell also stock up on books that indulge local interests. They spotlight fiction from Vermont authors, mystery novels, and cookbooks. Last year, one book describing Vermont's best swimming holes outsold the New York Times bestseller "Fifty Shades Darker."

Rivendell, of course, has its requisite mascot, too: Veruca, a 15-year-old tortoise named after a character in Roald Dahl's classic "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

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