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A conversation with Lisa Sullivan, owner of Bartleby’s Books

An entrepreneur turns the pages from English major to startup executive to marketing pro to bookstore owner

WILMINGTON—ROBERT FROST wrote in 1920: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.” In 2011, we learned that one doesn’t have to wait until hell freezes over, thank you. Water itself — in its most liquid form — proved hellishly devastating to us.

That April, a one-two punch knocked the life out of the iconic Brooks House, the largest building in downtown Brattleboro. An electrical fire and the thousands of gallons of water needed to put it out, put 60 residents out of their homes forever and 15 businesses out of business until they could figure out their next moves.

One of those businesses was the Book Cellar, a venerable member of the town’s bookstore family. It was purchased about six years earlier by Lisa Sullivan, who six months prior to that had bought Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington.

Barely four months after the fire, a good swath of the lower half of Vermont felt the fury of Tropical Storm Irene. Bartleby’s inventory was destroyed, and the store itself needed an almost-total rebuild.

Arguably few communities were hit as hard as Wilmington, with much of its downtown washed off its foundation.

Brattleboro and Wilmington — and, really, southern Vermont writ large — responded to these hits. The going had gotten tougher than imaginable, and the tough — bona fide local heroes — got going as never before.

One such hero was Sullivan. While the dream and reality called the Book Cellar were over, Bartleby’s Books had to be saved. She did just that. She does and will do everything possible to ensure the future of the bookstore as central to a thriving Wilmington.

The two of us first met in 2013 while on the post-Irene circuit of progress reports by community business folk. She was representing Wilmington Works, the downtown organization (for which she served as co-chair), and I the Brattleboro Area Chamber.

In addition, she sat on the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce board for eight years. She has worked on regional economic development with the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies.

Several weeks ago, I had the honor of sitting with Lisa Sullivan on the second floor of the store’s “new part” for this conversation.

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: So let’s get going on some background. How did you get here with me today?

Lisa Sullivan: It all started in Newport, R.I. In 1991, after graduating from high school, I headed west to Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. Like so many of us, I needed to help pay my way, and in 1993 I landed a job at a brand new tech startup. And I mean startup. We were headquartered in my boss’s wife’s sewing room.

J.G.: Got to start somewhere, right?

L.S.: Red Hat makes open-source software products, including a version of the Linux operating system. As an English major, I didn’t know open-source from Microsoft. So this non-techie stranger in a strange land wore as many hats as needed wearing, doing everything from customer service to sales to marketing to operations.

We grew fast — bursting the seams of that sewing room big-time. By the time I graduated in ’95, Red Hat had partnered with a firm in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, the area bounded by Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, homes of Duke, North Carolina State, and the University of North Carolina, respectively.

Those schools were producing top-line techies, so the company moved south. My husband Phil Taylor and I rode that fast lane all the way to Chapel Hill.

J.G.: An interesting turn in the road for an English major from New England!

L.S.: Sure was. Eventually Red Hat bought three enterprises in the Bay Area, so my last year with the company was spent commuting between San Francisco and our North Carolina headquarters.

J.G.: Where was your husband through all this?

L.S.: Phil’s a contractor — free to pull up and put down stakes. He could stick with me easily from Connecticut to Carolina to California.

But commuting got old pretty quickly, and it became clear that we needed a stable home base. We also wanted to be closer to our families in Connecticut and Rhode Island — so coming back to the Northeast looked like the next and best move. Oh, and we also thought it was time to start a family.

J.G.: So you leave the corporate world and relocate to … Wilmington, Vermont? What attracted you?

L.S.: Our friends had bought a ski house in the Chimney Hill community, so we’d come up here a fair amount over the years. These were perfect holidays for us — a real contrast to the rest of our life.

But on one visit it became different, because we found ourselves looking beyond the vacation thing and considering actually living here.

It was something of a boondoggle at first — we figured that we’d land here for a while and then maybe do something else. Then a place turned up that backs onto trails for great cross-country skiing in winter and hiking in summer. Once we were here, we knew we’d stay.

J.G.: How’d the adjustment go?

L.S.: In Wilmington, all you have to do is go into Dot’s Restaurant on the corner of Routes 9 and 100 during mud season for people to get that you’re not a second homeowner just up for the weekend.

People here are very community protective. We began to get involved in volunteer work. And we soon learned that it’s really that commitment to community that made us feel welcome and connected.

There’s so much that needs doing in a small town like ours, so once you’re identified as someone who’s going to be around and willing to roll up your sleeves, you can easily become a go-to person for any- and everything. The adjustment just happens.

J.G.: So you bought a place, and then said, OK, now what? Were you thinking of starting a business or maybe buying one? How did this ownership thing happen?

L.S: I had absolutely no plans to get into anything like a bookstore or any other retail enterprise.

When we first came here, I was working remotely and part-time for Red Hat. But my goal was to ease out of that.

A work pal had moved to town, and we started a marketing business. We operated out of my house — and no, I didn’t even have a sewing room! The business was going OK, but I found that I was at home and on my phone all the time. I wasn’t connecting in person with people nearly enough, and that bothered me.

J.G.: So when did Bartleby’s Books appear on your screen as anything more than a good shopping experience?

L.S.: I’ve been a book person all my life — I guess it’s that English major in me. I frequented the store and loved it. One day, a friend told me that the owners were looking to sell. So even though I hadn’t dreamt of owning a bookstore, the seed was planted.

I wanted the store to survive and thrive because it’s important for the town that people have access to the new books that are coming out all the time. I also thought it’s culturally important for the town to have an appropriate setting for author events and other cultural happenings.

So I got in. Because I was still running my little marketing business, I came into Bartleby’s as an investor and part-time worker. That was 12 years ago, in 2004.

Soon enough, my in-store time shot up from zero to 100. Within six months, we bought the Book Cellar in Brattleboro, which had been closed for a while. Our plan was to run the two stores with consolidated back-end operations like purchasing, accounting and marketing.

So while the bookstore business hadn’t been part of my grand plan, it sure seemed to fit with what I wanted, which was to work with books. I also needed a way to connect with community and nothing beats a bookstore — or two! — for that.

J.G.: Prior to doing these interviews, I’d thought that entrepreneurs had to be people who started a business or organization, something actually created out of whole cloth that had never existed before. I’ve learned that an entrepreneur can also be someone who takes something that had been around and then adds new ideas, new focus, new energy. I think of you that way. Talk to me about that, please.

L.S.: Before moving to Vermont, I had worked in a startup environment where every decision was new, every path was unpaved. Taking over businesses that were established was very different for me. I think I brought a viewpoint with me that questioned why things were done in a certain way, whether different opportunities existed, and so on.

At Bartleby’s, my focus operationally has been to bring the store up-to-date technologically with inventory management and point-of-sale systems. I’ve also considered that it was very important for customers to know that they could depend on us to either have what they were looking for or to get it for them quickly and efficiently.

J.G.: So how is business?

L.S.: There are layers of answers to that one. First, there’s what’s happening in the bookstore world in general, and — touch wood — Bartleby’s is doing OK, bucking the trend.

Six, seven years ago, it looked like bookstores were an endangered species. Independent bookstores were closing. The Borders chain shut its doors. The whole future of print communication was in question.

I think we’ve seen a turnaround on that, Kindles notwithstanding, and that goes for print newspapers, too. Look at the success of The Commons and the new interest in the Brattleboro Reformer and its sister papers. And the weekly Deerfield Valley News continues to be a critical local source.

J.G.: As an old print and paper guy, I couldn’t be more delighted.

L.S.: The media have picked up on the indie bookstore story so that when people come into Bartleby’s and see that we’re an independent they’re very supportive.

See, many of our customers — particularly the second-home owners — are here from places like New Jersey or New York, where their hometown bookstore may not have been able to hang in for this turnaround.

So they’re happy we’re here. We become, in effect, their local bookstore. How great is that?

J.G.: What percent of your business is visitor-driven and what’s local?

L.S.: Second-home owners make up half our business. They’re here often and have some money to spend. Locals make up maybe a quarter, and visitors are maybe the last quarter.

J.G.: As for all businesses downtown, there are times of year that are more challenging than others, right?

L.S.: Absolutely. Revenue can vary pretty widely at Bartleby’s during the high and low seasons. Something I’ve worked on since day one is to engage the local community as much as possible. The locals shop in the store when there are virtually no tourists around.

We noticed pretty soon that our strategy was working when after a year or two our April revenue was up significantly. That was big news, because anyone from around here can tell you that April doesn’t exactly hum.

J.G.: You say “engage the local community.” How?

L.S.: Simple. It’s about being active, being visible. Phil and I are involved however we can be. The store does a lot of things locally from putting on book fairs at schools — we do two — to giving donations, gift certificates, all kinds of support for local nonprofits. Our willingness to reach out and help the community helps our business.

J.G.: So was there any local competition for Bartleby’s when you got involved?

L.S.: Not in Wilmington. There’s an antiquarian bookstore down Main Street, but we’re really in different businesses. Our biggest competitor is Amazon. That’s a fact for bookstores everywhere.

J.G.: What else has changed along the way?

L.S.: When I first went into the business there wasn’t a lot of downtown activity unless it was a busy seasonal weekend. A group of merchants got together ad hoc to turn that around.

Now we’re going into the 10th year of the very popular Village Strolls — like Brattleboro’s Gallery Walk, with a bit less focus on art. We’ve also created a couple of very successful annual festivals.

Lots of folks on lots of committees have done a great job to bring vibrancy to downtown. That’s probably the biggest change we’ve seen.

J.G.: OK, time for the “I” word — Irene. Seems she hit just as Wilmington was starting to benefit from the upswing you’ve just spoken about.

L.S.: Yes, sort of an upswing. While we had this little swell of improvement when we were putting on a promotional event, it was still kind of like “Where are we going to get the $150 for the advertising?” This happened a lot, because there wasn’t an organization to take charge.

Then we had the flood and there were problems all over, issues with everything. We really had to decide: “Are we going to rebuild this town? Is this where we want to re-open our businesses?”

The answers were firmly positive. People said yes, and they said it with a confidence and commitment that changed the psyche of the whole community. The support we had after Irene was incredible.

J.G.: We all marveled at that. You folks showed amazing grit.

L.S.: You do what you’ve committed to, what’s in your heart. We’ve had a lot to do in the 4{1/2} years since Irene. Rebuilding our plants was just part of it.

The rest had to do with regenerating our businesses. For a couple of years, the future was pretty unclear. We didn’t have the business patterns we’d had before. We had no way of predicting anything.

Now I feel like we’re pretty much back to ourselves. We know what to expect — most of the time. With us, subject categories might fluctuate, but sales are generally up, so I have no complaints — barring, of course, no snow in February and a ton in April!

J.G.: Has working with the state in the wake of Irene been a smooth process? Do you think Vermont and the feds did right by you?

L.S.: I can’t say enough about our contacts here in southern Vermont and the way they were there for us.

The BDCC was incredible and got Vermont Economic Development Authority grants from the federal government to help with our recovery. The governor made some very smart moves, such as appointing two “czars” — short-term and long-term. Wilmington worked with FEMA for both short-term recovery and long-term planning.

Later, when Wilmington became a Designated Downtown, the Vermont Downtown Designation Program helped in so many ways, particularly providing an opportunity to secure tax credits toward rebuilding. So help was there for us.

Sure, talk to anyone who was affected, and they’ll tell you about what failed them. But that might not be what failed the person next door. I think everyone tried as hard as they could to get through a pretty difficult situation.

Vermont’s a pull-together state. Hey, I’ll bet we could write a book about how to do it next time, but we sure hope we don’t have to.

J.G.: There’s no question that Wilmington and Mount Snow and Stratton Mountain are interdependent, however the snowfall will have it. How would you describe the impact of the mountains on the local economy?

L.S.: It’s interesting. Our winter and summer businesses are very different. Winter is heavy on weekends and not so busy during the week.

While we might have more traffic in the Valley, we see customers for shorter periods of time. We have all been working to build up our summer and fall business, when it’s not as weather dependent and when folks tend to vacation here for longer stretches.

So we look to the mountains to bring people into the area, and then our job is to tell a story compelling enough to bring them downtown.

J.G.: Ah, the story. Every enterprise has one, right?

L.S.: I guess our story is the story our customers tell us — that we’ve got something for everyone. Our booksellers — the real stars of our show — work with customers all day long and help me adapt the business to customer need.

While bookstores are a pretty traditional business, we are adapting every day to the changing marketplace. And because we cover a wide range of subjects, we hope that people feel inspired by our collection, learn something, and maybe take a couple books home.

We also do whatever we can to make sure that being in Bartleby’s is a great experience. So, yes, it’s about the purchase. And it’s equally about the experience.

Whether they’re just browsing or hanging in for an author reading, we want folks to leave thinking, “I learned something new today,” or “That was exciting and I didn’t expect it.”

J.G.: What’s the story behind the name, Bartleby’s Books?

L.S.: It came with the store. It’s from Herman Melville’s short story masterpiece, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” Melville aside, I still don’t quite know why the original owners picked it back in 1989. When I got here 15 years later, I thought there was surely enough equity in it to keep it. It’s catchy, right?

J.G.: OK. Someone comes in to the store, you chat a bit, and they mention that they have a business they’d like to move or that they are thinking about starting a new business and looking at doing so in the Valley. What would you tell them?

L.S.: First, I’d determine if their business would be a good fit. I’d tell you about what exists here already, what doesn’t, and why. Fortunately, thanks to the BDCC and SeVEDS, a lot of background work’s been done to figure out what’s needed in the area, so I’d start there.

Second, people relocate for different reasons. I think choosing southern Vermont would be a good move if the lifestyle’s going to work for you. If so, sure, have your business here. Why not grab a quick bite and use the rest of your lunch hour to go cross-country skiing, if that appeals?

I’d also remind you that we’re accessible by car to major metros. Two hours between here and Boston and less than four hours to New York City. Rural, yes — remote, no.

J.G.: One thing that comes up which might not be as critical for a small retail operation like yours, but since you’re involved in local economic development, I’ll ask anyway: the workforce issue.

L.S.: It is an issue, but to me, it’s not a lack of workforce. It’s more a lack of jobs and workforce. They go together. You might have three open jobs, and maybe there’s a pool of sorts, but there aren’t enough jobs to drive a bigger pool. So you need both.

It’s not just how to fill open jobs. It’s critical to look at that whole. We have employable, qualified people here, but a good many of them are already employed. That’s the other piece. We’re not talking about high unemployment.

J.G.: How have you managed?

L.S.: Through all these years, I’ve had very little difficulty finding qualified people to work in either of the bookstores. Even though bookselling demands a diverse skill set — you’ve got to be good at conversation, good with computers, and have a good working knowledge of books and publishing — when I’ve put it out there, they’ve come.

J.G.: Bookstore staffers often amaze me with their ability to help us find what we’re looking for.

L.S.: But again, the workforce issue is one that we must continue to deal with. People here want to work and are willing to learn.

A large employer coming in can suck up a lot of employees, as we’ve seen from time to time. But if a small company is looking to fill a small number of jobs, they should be able to — absolutely.

Connections are being made between the local employers and the schools and training centers. What do they need, what should we be training for?

I think we’re moving in the right directions.

J.G.: You sound so confident.

L.S.: I am. Hey, my husband and I wouldn’t stick around if we didn’t think this was the right place, especially for our kids — 12-year-old daughter Ally, 9-year-old son Zach, and 3-year-old Jacob. It’s about them and their peers and the community they live in.

Operating Bartleby’s and living an engaged life in our community are how we connect with that critical population and help open worlds for them. And while we’re at it, for ourselves.