An Independent Bookstore, Rising From the Ashes

On the weekend of July 4, 2007—Bunch of Grapes, a beloved bookstore on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts—burned down when the restaurant next door caught fire. The prospects for revival of the business seemed remote. The Nelson family, its owners for decades, had already decided to sell, and it was hard to imagine that anyone would be ready to rebuild the store—fixtures, inventory, staff, all from scratch, considering the expense and the effort involved. Well, that is what happened. Bunch of Grapes made the national front pages a couple of weeks ago when President Obama, on one of the first days of his Martha's Vineyard vacation, stopped by to pick out books for his daughters and received an advance galley of Jonathan Franzen's blockbuster new novel, Freedom. In its way, all that publicity for the store signaled its return to full stature as a mainstay of the independent book culture that, while under siege in so many ways, still represents the image of what readers cherish about the experience of browsing bookstore shelves.

A few days after the excitement of the Obama foray, I stopped in at Bunch of Grapes to talk to its new proprietor, Dawn Braasch, about her revival of the store, its prospects as a year-round enterprise, and to see if there are any greater lessons to be drawn about the future of bookselling from her impressive commitment to retailing that the store's resurrection represents. Braasch was the events coordinator at Bunch of Grapes at the time of the fire. She had moved to Martha's Vineyard in 2005 from South Carolina, after raising two sons and a varied career in such activities as a trucking company and a caterer. Details of her deliberations with the Nelsons about the transaction, which involves a long-term lease on the property (which the Nelsons decided to keep) and a purchase of the Bunch of Grapes name, are off limits as a subject, she says.

Once the deal was done in October 2008, Braasch's first move was to open a mini-store of 650 square feet down the street from the burned-out shell, intending to preserve the store's identity while the major work was undertaken. On June 13, 2009, the beautiful, wood-paneled two-story structure, which very much resembles the original store, reopened. Several key members of the staff stayed on, including the main buyer, Dailis Merrill, who Braasch credits with the eclectic and creative choice of books from the front list to the classics and the selections of children's books and games that makes the store an anchor destination for visitors and long-term Vineyard residents. I think it is safe to say that time at Bunch of Grapes ranks with beaches, boating, bike riding, hikes, and sports as an essential pastime for visitors to the island.

The store's main sale months are, of course, June through August, but Braasch's goal is to develop enough momentum in the peak period to carry her through the rest of the year. She says that, while satisfied with this summer's results, revenues are running about 15 percent less than before the fire, although the economic meltdown that coincided with the period Bunch of Grapes was out of business might be part of that. On a beautiful Saturday morning in late August, the store was bustling, even though there were no events scheduled for the day. Braasch has continued the store's successful tradition of signings for any prominent author passing through as well as for local celebrities such as David G. McCullough, Jules Feiffer, and Judy Blume. Braasch also supplied copies of Alan Khazei's new PublicAffairs book Big Citizenship: How Pragmatic Idealism Can Bring out the Best in America for a Friday night event at the home of Harvard Professor Rosabeth Kanter, and sold a solid 64 copies.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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