By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
When Ed and Barbara Morrow founded Northshire Bookstore in 1976, they moved with their son, Chris, into an apartment below the shop. Chris, who was 9, remembers climbing a ladder from their home through a trap door that led to the service desk.
The Morrow family has owned the Northshire Bookstore ever since. It now has locations in Manchester, Vermont, and Saratoga Springs, New York. Over time, it has become a cornerstone of the Manchester community.
Early Friday morning, Chris announced with his parents that they’ve sold the business in a deal that was finalized Thursday, April 29.
“I started the process of selling the stores before Covid, but the pandemic reinforced that the time was right for me to move onto other things,” Chris Morrow wrote in a message to the community.
“This is a bittersweet watershed event for us to be sure, but one we are confident will be seamless and beneficial to the welfare of the bookstore and its service to the several marvelous communities it serves,” Ed and Barbara Morrow wrote.
Morrow said his main concern was finding buyers who “had the background, energy, vision and resources to carry the bookstores into future decades,” and who appreciated the current staff — nearly 25 people work at the Manchester location and 17 more at the store in Saratoga.
The first interested party he spoke with fit the bill.
Clark and Lu French, Manchester residents since 1999, own the real estate company French & Co. They helped design and build the Taconic Hotel, and they restored the former Mark Skinner Library building, turning it into the restaurant Silver Fork. Clark is on the board of the Manchester Community Library, Lu chairs the board of Taconic Music, and they’ve both served on other boards since arriving in town. They are also longtime patrons of the bookstore.
“It’s probably our favorite place in town,” Clark said.
All of the staff — some who have worked there for 30 years — will stay in place, he said, and he doesn’t plan to make many other changes.
Amid the rise of online retailers such as Amazon, the pandemic exacerbated an already difficult era for independent bookstores. Many around the country have been in danger of closing since the pandemic began, and by October, stores were closing at a rate of around one per week. Despite that, Northshire has been faring well.
“When you have a business that’s been open for 45 years in Manchester, and then eight years in Saratoga, and they run well … as a new owner coming in, it would be silly for us to think, geez, we know how to do this better,” Clark said. “I mean, that would just be kind of ridiculous.”
He said he looks forward to resuming in-person events with authors, for which the bookstore is also known. Clark has met John Irving, Garrison Keillor and Stephen King through Northshire.
“You normally wouldn’t have the benefit of that unless you lived in a much larger city,” he said.
‘A national treasure’
Just hours after the store posted the news to its Facebook page, it had already received hundreds of likes and dozens of comments and shares.
“You have long been the pride of Manchester in my opinion,” one commenter wrote.
Another said she had been coming to the store since the 1980s.
“I used to buy music there when I was a teen, always could find a great read, and then brought my own kids. I’ve grown up with Northshire,” she wrote.
Others called the store “a national treasure” and “one of the greatest examples of an endangered species left in our country.”
State Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester Center, said her family looked hard at different communities in several states before deciding to settle in Manchester in 1996. The bookstore was a big part of what put the town at the top of her list.
“In many ways, the Northshire is the heart and soul of our town, and Clark and Lu are the perfect people to inherit this iconic business,” James told VTDigger. “I have all the faith in the world that they’ll steward it as carefully and thoughtfully as the Morrows have.”
Morrow said he isn’t sure what’s next — he has two daughters who will soon head to college, so “retirement’s not an option.” He’ll take the summer off and said he’s looking forward to spending time with them before they leave.
“Perhaps it is fitting that I am at a loss for words, given how many words we have shepherded from soul to soul over the decades,” Morrow wrote to the community Friday morning. “What is bookselling without paradox, irony, humor, hope and fear, and a whole lotta hard work?”