Behind the Scenes of a Local Bookseller with Tricia Huebner, Phoenix Books [INTERVIEW]

This week’s episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast takes you behind the scenes of an independent bookstore courtesy of Phoenix Books in Rutland, Vermont. As writers and poets we have all spent many hours – and dollars – in bookstores. No online experience can replace walking down an aisle of bookshelves, searching for the poetry section, and being distracted by an intriguing book cover.

Tricia Huebner is the co-owner of Phoenix Books in Rutland, Vermont which opened in 2015.  She grew up outside of New York City, has bachelor’s degrees in English and History, and moved to Vermont more than 40 years ago. When not working she is an avid reader and enjoys hiking, kayaking, cooking, traveling, and spending time at her cottage on Lake Champlain.  

James Morehead: Before we dive into the business of bookselling, take us on a tour of Rutland, Vermont. What do you love about Rutland?

Tricia Huebner: “What I love about Rutland is that it’s a real town. There was an article in Vermont Life Magazine called ‘Rutland is Real, R Is For Real’. It’s a working-class town. It was built on both the marble and train industries, which were both big there. Now, the biggest employers there are the hospital and GE. There are no pretensions in Rutland. The other thing I love about it is people really volunteer so you can get as involved as you want to. The people who live there just really have good hearts and good intentions and strive to make the community better.”

James: What are your memories of bookstores growing up?

Tricia: “My favorite bookstore was in Mount Kisco, New York called ‘Fox and Sutherland’. My dad and mom were both avid readers. We had bookcases in every room in the house. We find it highly suspect if we go into somebody’s home and there are no bookcases. My earliest memories are going there with my dad. Between the vinyl records in the books, we could spend hours in there, so I’ve always loved bookstores. My mother also worked at a library, so I had the whole library experience as well.”

James: Why are bookstores, and in particular independent booksellers, important for communities?

Tricia: “They’re such a good gathering place. They’re all accepting. What I really like about a bookstore is I think it’s a place where anybody can feel safe and welcome. They’re a great place to exchange ideas, talk things over, and talk about books, which can lead you on any topic. One of my favorite parts of the job, because I’m a bookseller too, is matching somebody with a book for themselves or a loved one. There’s nothing better than that. Being downtown is great and being part of a community where we all know each other is wonderful.”

James: What are some of the ways that Phoenix Books works with the City of Rutland. What types of community events do you hold?

Tricia: “We’ve done children’s story-walks leading up from our store to the library and back down again through all sorts of businesses. We have author events and poetry events. We get involved with the schools and help them when they have events. We donate books to the Boys and Girls Club. We get involved with the Wonderfeet Kids Museum for some of their events. My manager just did an event with the Rutland Parent-Child center around a book that they were promoting. There’s so many ways to get involved.”

James: With so many books published every year, and an ever expanding back catalog of books to choose from, how do you decide what to stock?

Tricia: “My bookstore is the third one that my owner opened. His first bookstore was in Essex Junction, Vermont and his second bookstore was in Burlington, Vermont. Our store opened seven years ago. Our book ordering is done out of his Essex Junction store and we have a separate ordering for children’s books and adult books. They have reps from different publishing companies, catalogs, and advance reader copies. Working at a bookstore, you receive lots of books and want to buy them all. You also get advance reader copies from the publishers. I’ll get something six months before it’s coming out, which is fantastic because I can read it and be ready to recommend it on publish date. Essex Junction does the ordering, but the nice thing is each of our stores has their own flavor. We’re more of a working-class town. We can order anything we want in our store based on what we think our customers will like. I’m constantly reading Publishers Weekly or New York Times book reviews to make sure we’re getting in what I know our customers will like.”

James: Building on that question, what advice do you have for authors dreaming of seeing their book available in their local bookstore? What can authors do to make their book more attractive to a bookseller, or put another way, what are some of the mistakes you’ve seen that make a book harder to sell? 

Tricia: “In our bookstore, we will not carry books that are solely published by Amazon. My owner feels very strongly about that. My first suggestion is make sure you’re publishing with somebody that your independent bookstore in your town is comfortable selling. We’ve definitely had that be an issue at all three of our stores. It’s not just our store — a lot of bookstores feel this way. Be sure that you understand the difference between us selling your books where we order them from the publisher versus you selling on consignment. Either way is great, but there are differences between the two and make sure you’re clear on what the percentages are for consignment and how that will work. I also think just stopping in is a good option. We’re very Interested in carrying local books, so there’s nothing wrong with putting your face out there by dropping off a copy of your book. That’s often the way that we get local books on our shelves.”

James: In an article about the opening of Phoenix Books Rutland, the model used was described as a “community-supported enterprise business model”. How does that work?

Tricia: “There was a group of business leaders and community people in Rutland that met and discussed what we really want in our town, and at the top of the list was a bookstore. My partner Mike already owned two bookstores up north and somebody approached him and asked him to open a bookstore in Rutland. Mike said to the person who approached him, Steve Costello, that if Steve could get him 50 people who would do a pre-buy of books of a thousand dollars each, then he had a deal. Mike also wanted Steve to find a couple other investors who would invest a sum bigger than that. He needed a way to pre-buy some inventory — that needed to be the commitment. It buys us time, it gets us the inventory, and it’s really wonderful for the customer because the customer comes in and they have a thousand dollars on account which they can use. Some people blew through it quickly, and some people after over five years are still using it. It’s a really interesting model. The way I got involved is he wanted a local manager and he wanted that manager to also be a co-owner and part investor.”

James: What have you learned about bookselling since getting involved with Phoenix Books that you can share with listeners thinking about starting a bookstore in their community?

Tricia: “We were lucky that we have the expertise from our mother ship store in Essex. There’s so many things to think about, which are not just pictures and books. Bookstores cannot survive, in my opinion, if they aren’t also a gift store. I know that bothers some people, but it’s the reality. A third of our store is children’s which includes toys, games, puzzles, and plush. Bookstores have to do that in order to survive. It is important to keep in mind that you probably are not just going to be selling books. That’s a big piece of it. The other thing is knowing your community. When we opened up, we thought we knew what the community wanted. Sometimes we were right and sometimes we weren’t in terms of what would sell. That saved us during Covid-19 because we had the perfect business for Covid. People were stuck in their homes and they wanted books for sure, but they also wanted puzzles and games.”

James: The pandemic disrupted every brick and mortar business. How did Phoenix Books weather the storm? What changes made during the pandemic have stayed in place?

Tricia: “There were times when the pandemic first started where we would only have one person in the store. We did that for safety reasons along with curbside pickup, which was great. The customer could pay over the phone and there would be no in-person contact. The other thing that we started that we’ve continued is delivery in Rutland. My manager and I do those deliveries. It’s great because there are a lot of people who still can’t leave their homes or don’t feel comfortable coming in without a mask. We still have a masking policy in our store for staff, but not for people coming in because we get a lot of children in the store and feel strongly about safety. But, I’d say adding delivery and curbside services were the two biggest things the pandemic did to change our store.”

James: What is your role in Phoenix Books Rutland? How would you describe a typical day, what are the joys and challenges of managing a bookstore? 

Tricia: “A lot of people think if you work in a bookstore, then you sit around and read books all day. First of all, you don’t sit. You have an 8-hour shift where you don’t sit. UPS or FedEx bring you big big stacks of books, hopefully boxes of books, and you receive them in purchase orders and invoices. Then, you have to shelve them all. That’s a big part of the day. You then have to break down all the boxes. You have people come in who say they were here last week and over at a table there was a book with a green cover that looked really good, but they can’t remember anything about it. We love that kind of challenge. People come in and ask for something for their nine-year-old grandson who really likes dragons. Somebody may come in and look for a birthday present for their father who really likes history. It’s a lot like solving a mystery. Then, there’s people calling in and ordering something over the phone. There’s also internet orders that come in. It’s a very physical job.”

James: Physical books, unlike music and movies which are both mostly digital now, are still going strong. What is it about the physical form of a book that has been so resilient? 

Tricia: “It’s funny, my daughter is 30 and even her generation still likes vinyl. They still like real books. I don’t know if it’s a nostalgia thing. I have a lot of friends in my book group who read only on Kindles. I personally don’t like it. One of the things with a physical book is it’s a great gift. You can gift Kindle book to somebody, but it’s not really the same. My generation who has grandchildren want physical books, so children’s books are really important in that way. I do have my Kindle readers who tell me they’re great because you can automatically look up the meaning of a word. They’re not so great though because you’re not really sure all the time how far into the book you are. Kindle books don’t come with some of the appendices or maps and photos in the front. I’m a purist.”

James: What are your plans for the upcoming years? What has you most excited?

Tricia: “During COVID, we’ve had our best years sales wise, which is just crazy. I’m definitely looking forward to in-store author events. We had remote author events and there’s pros and cons to that. It was nice to be sitting at home in my jammies eating my dinner while watching an author and not having to charge out into the snow. But, you just don’t get the same feel and the authors really missed it. They really missed that contact. What we want to do is be more creative with off-site author events. We collaborate with the library and have a beautiful theater called the Paramount Theater just a few doors down from us. During COVID, we did have David Sedaris there which was so much fun. We’d like to partner more with Paramount Theater to provide bigger venues for our authors. The other thing is that we’re working more with schools in doing book fairs.”

James: Finally, what do you enjoy reading and do you have any book recommendations to share? 
Tricia: “I love mystery, historical fiction, fiction and history. I just read a young adult book called ‘African Town’ and it’s done in a prose poetry way. I didn’t even know because I was listening to this book. It is a lyrical book with fourteen characters. It’s about the last slave ship to come over from Africa to Mobile, Alabama. The voices are the shipowner, the plantation owner, the Africans, and even the ship is a voice. It actually ends in the early 1900s. Africa Town still exists to this day. It’s all based on historical records journals. These are real people. It was fascinating. So if you’re a poet, I hate to say it because I work in a bookstore, but if you could listen to ‘African Town’, it is really lyrical.”

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