BENNINGTON — Imagine spending your days surrounded by the beautiful words of Amanda Gorman, Louise Erdrich, Anthony Doerr and Amor Towles. Or visiting the magical midnight library, the memory-filled kitchen of Stanley Tucci, or the inspiring mind and vision of Jane Goodall.
Welcome to The Bennington Bookshop, the oldest independent bookstore in Vermont.
“I grew up spending all my pocket money on books, ordering from the local bookshop, going to local cities and towns and spending whole afternoons in bookshops,” said Phil Lewis, who grew up in Western England. Lewis bought The Bennington Bookshop in 2015 with his wife, Linda Foulsham, a native New Englander who previously owned a bookstore and brought the business know-how to the duo’s venture.
The Bennington shop, established in 1928, was on the market, Lewis said. “We were living in North Carolina, and Linda wanted to open a bookshop in the town where we were living, but there were no suitable sites. We came up to have a look at Bennington, and we really liked the area. We looked at the figures for the Bookshop, and it seemed to be doing well enough.”
Best of all, Lewis said, “This is a big book community.”
“We have an online presence, too; we do a fair bit of our sales through online orders,” he said. But, he added, Bennington-area customers don’t like to rely on their computers and phones to browse electronic bookshelves. “Most of our customers are thrilled to hold books. They come in and smell books.”
In pre-pandemic days, The Bennington Bookshop hosted events like author readings and in-store book clubs (now held virtually, with the Bookshop promoting clubs like the Bookworms, Men’s Adventure Club, Whodunnit?, Ladies of the Book and more on the store’s website at benningtonbookshop.com).
“We used to do two or three events a month before the pandemic,” Lewis said.
Last October, the shop hosted a presentation and book signing by Newfane mystery writer Archer Mayor, after the release of his latest Joe Gunther novel, “Marked Man” — his 32nd book in the Vermont-based series.
“In the warmer months, we did a couple of events on the lawn behind the Bookshop. We’ll do that again when the weather warms.”
I ask this man who averages reading five books a week: So, what are we reading these days?
In general, he said, bestsellers like “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles, author of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Pulitzer-prize winning author Anthony Doerr, who wrote “All the Light We Cannot See” and local author Genevieve Plunkett, whose collection of stories — “Prepare Her” — came out last summer.
Lewis moves among genres in his personal reading. He likes mysteries, he said, but at the moment he is reading “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson. Foulsham’s current book is “The Sentence” by Louise Erdrich, which USA TODAY described as a “hard-won love letter to readers and to book sellers, as well as a compelling story about how we cope with pain and fear, injustice and illness. One good way is to press a beloved book into another’s hands.”
The Bennington Bookshop has a children’s section with pop-ups, picture books, sticker books, science and nature — everything that makes reading fun for a child. Lewis said the kids often choose an author, start with Book 1 and “read every book in the series.”
And the young adult section is for young and old alike. That genre, Lewis said, “raises a lot of issues people are interested in.” One of the most popular young adult series at the moment is Karen M. McManus’ books that begin with “One of Us is Lying.” Who could resist that title?
Lewis said customers come in and ask for suggestions, and he and Foulsham appreciate their feedback. Did they like the book…did they not? Lewis also goes on WAMC Northeast Public Radio to talk about books he’s reading, which prompts a lot of listener response.
What’s next for The Bennington Bookshop? “I think it will be much the same,” he said. The shop recently moved into its new location downtown on South Street, a block from the Banner newsroom at 423 Main St. They might try to do more online events, which have taken off, and also hope to return to in-person gatherings with authors and book clubs.
But they plan to stay in Bennington, Lewis said.
“We really enjoy Bennington. It’s got a lot of heart.”
Susan Allen is managing editor of the Bennington Banner. “View from 423 Main” is a bi-weekly column.