Wilmington's Bartleby Books — a story of resilience through fire and high water

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WILMINGTON >> Just this month, Vermont bookseller Lisa Sullivan hosted the author of a new novel about a heroine who rebuilds her life after, as dramatized on page 4, "The flames caught the edge of one of the antique velvet curtains, which ignited like flambeéd cherries. And that's when the sprinkler system kicked in."

A comeback story about fire and flood? Sullivan relates. She was off in the Bahamas in the spring of 2011 when one of her two businesses — the Book Cellar in Brattleboro — was destroyed by a five-alarm blaze that nearly destroyed the Brooks House on Main Street.

"I had been sleeping for an hour," she recalls, "when I got this phone call in the middle of the night saying, 'Lisa, I have something to tell you.'"

Four months later, Sullivan was inside her other store — Bartleby's Books in Wilmington — when flooding from Tropical Storm Irene washed away the rest of her livelihood.

"We had water coming in waves," she says, "and then we smelled propane."

Owning one of Vermont's two dozen local independent bookshops is hard enough in an era of Amazon e-readers that instantly beam a world of titles for as little as 99 cents. Add hell and high water and the challenge seems crushing.

"To lose two stores to catastrophes in less than five months would be more than I could bear," Publishers Weekly blogger Josie Leavitt wrote in a column titled "Our Hearts Are Breaking." "The shock, the anger and the sheer enormity of rebuilding would have me paralyzed."

Sullivan instead mobilized. Losing her leased space in Brattleboro, she repaired the storefront she owns in Wilmington in time to reopen for the Christmas 2011 shopping season.

Stop by the Vermont town hit hardest by Irene (more than $13 million in damage, the state says) and you'll find shelves full of history, mystery, romance, suspense — and one true story of resilience.

'Before I knew'

Sullivan, a onetime West Coast software marketer, moved to Wilmington in 2001 to unplug — only to buy into her hometown Bartleby's in the spring of 2004 and Brattleboro's Book Cellar that fall.

"A really short time span," she says. "Some would argue before I knew anything."

Few shoppers seemed bothered at Bartleby's, then a still-maturing 15-year-old business. But many voiced concern at the Book Cellar, the most venerable store in downtown's cornerstone Brooks House. Did the new owner understand the shop was a literary landmark since Norman Rockwell appeared at its opening in 1948? That it boasted autographed photos of Robert Frost and Dorothy Canfield Fisher? That it was one of a select few in the nation to publish its own history?

Sullivan did. She and store manager Ana McDaniel carefully stocked the historic 15-foot-high shelves reached by rolling ladders. They also attracted such national authors as Melissa Coleman, whose memoir "This Life Is in Your Hands" received a rave New York Times review just a week before a Brattleboro appearance April 15, 2011.

The author quoted her famous gardening father, Eliot Coleman, about spring's smell of possibilities. But two nights later, upstairs apartment dwellers only detected smoke. A staple in an electrical wire had sparked a building-gutting blaze. To extinguish it, firefighters shot almost 2 million gallons of water up five floors onto the roof — and down onto the store's $250,000 inventory.

Sullivan, on vacation, watched news footage via the internet. Renting rather than owning the space, she could see that her landlord would need to strip the block of everything except its wooden skeleton and brick sheathing before launching a multiyear timetable for rebuilding.

'Worst case'

Returning to Vermont, Sullivan salvaged a few trash cans and folding chairs amid what otherwise was pulp.

"Wallowing a little bit," she recalls, "I decided I was going to take a step back and focus on Bartleby's."

Founded in 1989, the Wilmington store inherited some history when it moved from a Route 100 storefront to a 175-year-old Route 9 carriage house on its 20th anniversary. The central downtown business, with the Book Cellar's McDaniel as new manager, enjoyed a sunny summer.

Then came the forecast for Irene.

The day before the Aug. 28, 2011, storm, Sullivan was attending a family reunion in Rhode Island when her husband, Phil Taylor, suggested they return home to clear a few things off the floor.

"We were thinking, worst case, we might get an inch or two of water," she recalls.

By 8:30 the next morning, rain had swelled the nearby Deerfield River, normally 2 feet deep, to 11 feet.

Sullivan moved the store's computer from below the counter to on top of it.

Two hours later, the current, up to 25 feet, was spilling over banks and bridges.

Sullivan moved the computer to the second floor.

"We started to see the river rushing down the road."

Her husband, a carpenter, worried that outside pressure might crush the 1830s building. To save the structure, he said, they'd have to offset the strain by flooding the store.

The couple stood helpless as, opening the door, some 4 feet of water gushed inside. Smelling propane, the two then ran up the stairs, escaped out a back entrance and up a nearby hill. They had to wait two days before the National Guard let them see the loss of nearly $300,000 in stock and surroundings.

News outlets as far-reaching as National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times reported Bartleby's flood. Sullivan, for her part, flashed back to the Book Cellar fire.

"How could I have these two things happen?"

Then she saw her good fortune.

'Who knows?'

Bartleby's was sopping but, unlike nearby buildings condemned or carried off by the water, it was salvageable. Touring a storm-ravaged Wilmington as outgoing president of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce, Sullivan felt a sense of defeat morph into determination.

"I really felt we needed to save this town," she says today.

Sullivan started with her store. Industry studies show that local independent businesses like hers reinvest almost half of their receipts back into the community — three times the figure of national chains and 100 percent more than out-of-town internet retailers that don't pay state taxes.

Almost two dozen volunteers — "half of whom I didn't know" — began by filling dumpster after dumpster with hardcovers gone soft. Then came her husband and his crew with new wallboard, waterproof insulation and plans to reinforce the first floor and relocate the furnace and much of the retail space upstairs.

Sullivan supplemented her flood insurance with a low-interest Vermont Economic Development Authority loan and a few lucky breaks. The national Borders "superstore" chain went bankrupt just after Irene, allowing her to buy $40,000 worth of its shelving for one-tenth the price. Publishers, for their part, donated $10,000 in free product.

Bartleby's was nothing but exposed beams when Sullivan held a special leaf-peepers sale that Columbus Day weekend. As she sold books out of boxes, her then 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son poured $661 worth of lemonade for a local flood relief fund.

Bartleby's reopened Black Friday of November 2011 when more than two dozen shoppers — some waiting outside in lawn chairs — streamed in to see neatly shelved books amid new plasterboard walls and cement floors.

Happy ending?

"In some ways," Sullivan says, "it was a beginning."

In Vermont, Irene killed six people, ravaged 3,500 buildings, more than 500 miles of roads and 200 bridges at an estimated cost of $733 million — a figure equal to two-thirds of the state's annual general fund budget.

"Only a few other places reopened when we did," she says. "There was a long stretch of time we felt we were going it alone."

With the start of 2012, Sullivan and her manager traveled to the American Booksellers Association conference in New Orleans, where they saw neighborhoods still ravaged seven years after Hurricane Katrina.

'Riding adrenaline'

Wilmington has healed slowly but faster. Nearby businesses such as Dot's Restaurant — deemed "a national treasure" by Gourmet magazine — required two full years and $1 million in renovations to reopen.

"For so long we were just riding this adrenaline to get things done," Sullivan is quoted in this summer's issue of Yankee Magazine. "But eventually that goes, and I remember just reaching a point that winter where I thought, I can't bear to do another thing."

Soon after, however, she learned she was pregnant with her third child, a son born in 2013.

"My husband and I like to joke we had two bad surprises and then a good surprise."

But while Sullivan celebrates birthdays, she's reluctant to mark Irene's anniversary.

"In some ways I don't want to think about it, but in others I think we've come a long way. We don't talk about the flood on a daily basis or use terms like 'the new normal' anymore."

Instead, the bookseller has turned a new page.

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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