Books for everyone for 35 years

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BRATTLEBORO — A lot of things have changed on Elliot Street in the past 35 years, but one thing has remained the same — the presence of Everyone's Books.

On Friday, from 4 to 7 p.m., Everyone's Books, at 25 Elliot St., will celebrate its 35th anniversary with music, food and fun.

"I had worked in a strange, alternative bookstore in Providence before we moved here," said Nancy Braus, who founded Everyone's Books with her husband, Rich Geidel, in one of the most significant years in literary history, 1984. "That store was about the size of a shoe box, but I got a taste of what we could do in Brattleboro."

But the seed of Everyone's Books had more to do with her children than anything, said Braus, during a visit to her store on Tuesday.

"It was really hard to find children's books that represented diversity," she said. "My kids were 2 and 4 at the time, long before the internet, and I would look in book stores and find there was nothing that really represented children of color or other lifestyles. We began with the idea that we could be a representation of that."

Everyone's Books is located on the corner of Harmony Parking Lot, in a building with creaky, wooden floors. The interior is loaded with books, of course, but the walls are plastered with bumper stickers and signs, T-shirts hanging from the rafters and racks and racks of pins and postcards and greeting cards.

When Everyone's Books opened in 1984, it was sharing a building with a Korean deli, where Hazel Restaurant now stands. A few years later they bought the space below what was then the Common Ground Restaurant, a funky, worker-owned collective that drew free spirits from around New England to Brattleboro. The Common Ground eventually faded into Brattleboro history, but Everyone's Books remains, even with the challenges of the internet and the book-selling leviathan, Amazon, taking business from traditional brick-and-mortar book stores around the country.

"We've got to compete with Amazon for every dime," said Braus. "But, fortunately, we have a lot of people who are very loyal to us. Every day they come in and tell me they would rather pay a little more than give money to the 'Evil Empire.'"

Braus said she and Geidel wanted Everyone's Books to embody both their vision of a community resource and the values that Vermonters hold dear — social justice, climate

awareness and diversity.

"It's been an interesting experience and it's working very well so far," she said.

But it hasn't always been certain, especially when the internet exploded into the marketplace and book publishers started pushing e-books. She decided early on not to offer an e-reader and stick to what she knows best — books and more books.

"I decided if the industry is going to move away from paper books toward e-books, I'm going to get out of the business," she said. "Fifteen years ago, there was a significant group of people who really believed books were going to go the same way as the record industry. I felt that was a possibility but I also felt we wouldn't be a book store if we focused on electronic books. And if we are going to be maintaining a community book store, we are going to sell books. If people don't want to buy books, we would close."

But, said Braus, she has been somewhat surprised that they weathered the internet storm and are thriving despite of, or maybe because of, the impersonal nature of buying books online or reading a book on a screen.

"I thought it was going to be a generational thing, but a lot of younger people these days also want books," said Braus.

And books, unlike e-books, make great gifts that can be wrapped up and handed to friends and loved ones.

"You can't wrap up an e-book," she said.

Books also bridge a gap between parents and caregivers and children, said Braus.

"People don't want to be sitting in bed reading to their 2-year-old from a device."

Maintaining a book store on Elliot Street is also part of maintaining a vital downtown, said Braus. And while she has heard a lot of complaints from people about downtown and people loitering and panhandling, she thinks some things have gotten better over the years.

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"Twenty years ago, the Harmony Lot was a catastrophe. Harmony Lot is definitely a more peaceful place than it was before," she said, adding Brattleboro has always had a little "grit" to it. "My experience, in 35 years in Brattleboro, is that it's always been on the edge. It's never going to be a Woodstock or a Stowe. It's got its own character."

Braus has employed many people over the years, but relies most heavily on Ann Zimmerman, who has been in the store since 1999, and Clea Boone, who over two different stints has spent nearly 15 years there. Braus also employs part-timers — Leslie Sullivan Sachs, Pat Sheehan and Julie Dolan.

"I was a young woman with brown hair when I started working here and my kids were 2 and 6," said Zimmerman, who started out filling in on Sundays.

"I would have done it for free," she said.

"I have never asked anyone to work for free," responded Braus. "Never, ever, ever."

As a recently divorced parent, working part-time at the book store worked well for Zimmerman. It also gave her a sort of escape from everyday life.

"I was an English major," said Zimmerman. "Being around books and people talking about books was the opposite of wiping butts and pouring juice."

As her son, Sawyer Zimmerman Olson, got older, he would often sit in a comfy chair for hours at a time, studying and doing math.

"Her very athletic son would sit there and read a book and not even move," said Braus.

"He was a serious reader," said Zimmerman.

Boone said she worked for Braus in the 1990s before leaving the country for nearly a decade. When she came back, she stopped in and asked Braus how she was doing.

"I just whipped through and said if you ever need any help, give me a shout. Nancy said she wasn't hiring but if I wanted to do some filing I could come in," said Boone. Two weeks later, long-time employee Jeanette Ford left and Boone was hired full time.

"We needed someone in a hurry," said Braus, with a laugh.

Boone has been with Everyone's Books for 11 years now.

"She was meant to be here," said Braus.

Braus said she is considering retirement, but is not going to let management of the store go to just anyone.

"I don't want it to become something else," she said. "The store is valuable enough that I would like to pass it on to somebody who really wants to do it."

Braus said she has no plans to leave the area, but would like to do more organizing around issues such as climate change.

"I'm not going to 'Seniorville' in Scottsdale, Arizona. That is definitely not an option."

And Braus is not giving up on the internet entirely. On Friday, Braus is taking a step toward the internet with a roll out, managed by Boone, of Everyone's Books e-commerce site at www.everyonesbks.com.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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