By Daniel Ford
“Do you mind if I run into the local bookstore?”
I can’t tell you how many times Stephanie Schaefer has heard me ask that. No matter where we are—and no matter how high the stack of unread books is on my nightstand—I have to find the nearest provider of the printed word. It’s just what I do.
We were sitting in a bustling café in downtown Portsmouth, N.H. on Memorial Day when I decided that I was in dire need of an old map of the area. A quick Google search pointed me in the direction of RiverRun Bookstore, which was a five-minute walk from where we were sitting. Stephanie was kind enough to let me indulge my history nerd-ness and we walked hand in hand to the small, charming local bookstore.
I fell in love instantly. Just by walking in the front door, one can tell that words, literature, writing, and reading have a loving place to call home. I awkwardly asked the store’s owner, Tom Holbrook, if he’d be interested in a doing an interview and he happily agreed. I left him with a Writer’s Bone card, and I walked out with the map I had so desired a half hour earlier.
Check out what Holbrook had to say about opening a bookstore in the digital age, the Portsmouth community, and the store’s most memorable book events.
And as he says, “Keep buying books!”
Daniel Ford: What inspired you to become a reader and what’s the first book that made an impression on you?
Tom Holbrook: The first thing I remember reading on my own would be The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I still recommend Encyclopedia Brown all the time, because the take-away message is that if you read enough books you can solve crime!
DF: Your bookstore has been opened for 12 years now. Why did you want to establish a bookstore?
TH: I started working for Borders, and worked hard to become a store manager. I quickly realized that the job was much like being a junior high principal—unhappy staff below you and overly complicated bureaucracy above you—and decided I wanted to run my own small store.
DF: How has the Portsmouth embraced your store over the years and how involved are you in the community?
TH: We host more than 100 book events, for free, every year as part of our community involvement, and sponsor many events. We also give discounts to local schools and nonprofits. We have moved the store twice, and each time more than 100 people have shown up to form a book brigade to move the boxes down the sidewalk. We also have a very active social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
DF: Many independent bookstores are struggling to survive digital age of online retailers, e-books, and what’s left of the big-box retailers. What sets RiverRun apart from this competition and how is the store adapting to this change?
TH: Digital has taken a serious bite out of traditional bookselling, and while most of us have an online presence where a customer can order books and e-books, Amazon has a stronghold on that market. Most of the indies I know have found some other niche to supplement their book sales. Some are great with cards and gifts, some add coffee or a bar. For us, it has been publishing books as Piscataqua Press.
DF: What are some of the things you look for when buying books for the store?
TH: We will carry anything with a local angle, it’s just a given. For national authors, we look at past track record, how it compares to the sections that traditionally do well with us, and, of course, the cover!
DF: Your staff seems to be made up of passionate and voracious readers. How much time and effort do they put into reading and recommending books, and how good does it feel to put the right book in the right person’s hands?
TH: Oh, I used to read so much!! Between having a kid, publishing books, and running the store it doesn’t seem like I read at all anymore (although I can tell you anything you want to know about Rainbow Fairies…). Luckily, I do have strong readers on staff, one of which reads about 300 books a year, and that isn’t a typo. It’s very gratifying when the staff picks section is consistently in the top sellers.
DF: What’s one of your most memorable book events?
TH: Oh, we’ve done so, so many. You’d be surprised how moving a book release party by a local author can be when 75 of their friends and family are there to celebrate.
But for the big ones: Barack Obama (incredible), Gloria Steinem (inspiring), and David Sedaris (hysterical).
DF: You also run Piscataqua Press, an independent publishing company. Where did the idea to pursue that and how rewarding has it been to work with new, local, and up-and-coming authors?
TH: Local authors, of which there are many on the seacoast, are always asking me to carry their self-published books, and of course we do. However, I noticed that many of these books were very poorly produced, and often the author had paid a few thousand dollars to some faceless online company. Our friends at a local company, Mindstir Media, suggested that we could publish books for local authors, and here we are! We are very transparent with people about the process, and what they can expect for sales, etc. No one is getting rich in this business, but for many authors this is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and it is very satisfying to help with that.
DF: What advice do you have for aspiring authors (and young readers for that matter)?
TH: The Internet is awesome, and e-books are cool, but science is showing that our brains will forget how to concentrate if we don’t practice concentration. Sustained reading of longform narrative is a skill that needs to be practiced or it will disappear. So I say read books, long books, books made out of paper, and do it often. It’s hard to be an author if you can’t concentrate for long periods of time.
DF: What’s the future hold for RiverRun?
TH: If only I knew! Keep buying books!
DF: Name one random fact about yourself.
TH: I can ride a unicycle.