Reading a Community: The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington
“I never wanted to own a bookstore, but if I was going to, this was the one,” explains Hickory Stick Bookshop owner Fran Keilty. “This is where I came when I was a child. I’ve always been a bookseller; before this I was part of [New Haven’s] Atticus, commuting over two hours a day. Then this opportunity presented itself about ten years ago, and everything fell into place. Not to mention this is eight minutes from my house.” Keilty is the fourth owner in Hickory Stick’s sixty-year history, which, since its inception, has always served as an area anchor. “Real estate agents use having a local bookstore as a great selling feature. Litchfield County is filled with so many writers, artists, literary agents, and people who make books and like books, it’s perfect.”
Every town has a center and for Washington, Connecticut, it’s Keilty’s Hickory Stick. The community maven’s name comes up a lot, but she refuses to take credit for her high profile, citing the store’s prominent location—in the center of town—and the fact that she’s on many boards, and is the president of the Washington Business Association. Either way, if it’s happening in town, you can count on Fran Keilty to be part of it. “You have to be connected to people. This is a people business. Lots of other towns have high-end things. But Washington is rare. It’s where you can really live. It has a hardware store, clothing stores, a grocery store, and good restaurants. The Hickory Stick is one of the amenities.”
Big-box booksellers have begun closing left and right and Fran understands the meaning of that void. “Those who have lost their bookstores feel the loss. I think it’s very important to have a physical space for books. I want as many physical spaces where people can see books as possible,” she says. “People want an experience. If you know what you want, you can find it online, but browsing is really hard. If you want to browse, going online can be frustrating. And a quality experience is something we can provide. We listen and try to be in tune with the community.”
“It’s a greater community, not just Washington. It’s the area and the state,” says her husband Michael Keilty, speaking to the responsibility they feel to their region. “Independent booksellers contracted, but now they’re expanding again,” and he is an exuberant participant. “Bookstores were thought of as intimidating and this one was too. Now we invite dogs, and there is no ‘shushing’ in these aisles. Every single day you see children running to their section. Now, how are you going to do that on the internet?”
The Keiltys are like two bookends; not a matching set, but more like a head and a tail. They have the expected sentence-finishing that comes after decades of marriage, and while Fran is often referred to by residents as the village historian, she promises she’s not. “I only serve as a correction for my husband’s recollections.” Their banter proves better than actual facts. “Arthur Miller sat in this chair. Or was it that one? They’re a pair,” Keilty muses, referring to two comfy armchairs nearby. Since 1974, Michael, a sustainable agriculture educator at the University of Connecticut, has owned Maple Spring Farms, a diversified farm in Morris, CT, where the Keilty family lives, tends a large organic farm, and raises livestock like Cheviot sheep—a smaller breed known for its wool (which they sell in the store). Although his interests lie squarely in agriculture, “the bookstore is a natural thing to be roped into with my bride of fifty years.” And in return, Fran keeps the sustainable-living section fully stocked.
But in this modern age, one must stay current, and to do so Fran hosts many author appearances and is soon to launch a “meet an author for lunch” program, providing an opportunity for readers to engage with an author and talk about their book over lunch. “I have no idea if it’s going to work, but you have to mix it up a bit. We also have a ‘Big Books for Little People’ program. You can choose to give a child in your life a book monthly, or for their birthday, or every three months; there are many configurations.” Aside from the dazzling array of tomes, the shelves are well-stocked with children’s learning activities, toys, puzzles, games, music, calendars, greeting cards, local yarn, picture frames, and soy candles. “Still, eighty-plus percent of our sales are books. We’re committed to promoting the works of our local authors by hosting public and private signings with them whenever possible, and keeping their books in stock and prominently displayed.”
The Hickory Stick plays home to nontraditionally published authors, too. “It used to be vanity presses, but now that whole field has changed so much, and it’s become a legitimate way for many people to get their books published. We do stock them and we do have events with them,” says Fran. “We are a community bookstore. If we are not going to act as a community bookstore, we have no reason to exist.” —Dale Stewart
The Hickory Stick Bookshop
2 Green Hill Rd.
Washington, CT 06794