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.

So what is the future for an independent store like Bunch of Grapes in the digital age? An attractive, established store in a prosperous resort community begins with a core constituency that so many urban independents are struggling to maintain. But Braasch recognizes that she too is in increasing competition with the convenience of online retailers, especially Amazon and the surging popularity of e-book readers. Bunch of Grapes has a good website and assures visitors they'll get what they want, whether still in the vicinity or having returned to their homes. In the store, when a customer asks for a book, Braasch and her staff do everything possible to close the sale, or at least recommend a comparable book, rather than see anyone leave empty handed. As of now, Bunch of Grapes does not sell e-books directly, but like most independents she hopes that the evolving technologies for use on multiple devices—especially the American Bookseller's Association partnership with Google Editions, when it is finally launched—will begin to establish a relationship with customers that last beyond their trip to the store.

Enterprising and bold as she clearly is, Braasch acknowledges that the future for traditional bookselling is at best unclear and the challenges are formidable. In 2009, while total book sales in the United States fell by about 1.8 percent, according to the Association of American publishers, e-book sales increased 176 percent from a low base, but that number has surged in 2010, now closing in on 10 percent of overall sales. Braasch and virtually every other independent bookseller understand that they will have to master digital sales to multiple devices, and soon.

This has been a hectic summer in the book trade. The future of Barnes & Noble is in play in a test of wills between the controlling Riggio family and Ron Burkle, who is contesting their ownership. Resolution of the tug-of-war over e-book pricing and rights seems to be making progress, now that agent Andrew Wylie has pulled back from his exclusive deal with Amazon. It was a pleasure to spend time with Dawn Braasch in the store that she has brought back to life, and to be reminded what it is about bookselling that, for all its problems, makes it so appealing.