The Little Bookstore(s) That Could: Oblong Thrives in a Shifting Marketplace
By Robert Burke Warren
“Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”—Mark Twain
Although the bean-counting experts predicted otherwise, Millerton and Rhinebeck, NY’s family-run Oblong Books & Music stores are not only surviving, but thriving. (Illustration of the Millerton branch by Illu Brozyna.) To most, the rise of online shopping (Amazon, et al.) was the death knell for brick-and-mortar booksellers, with the advent of e-readers delivering the coup de grace. While this has proved true for many bookstores, large and small, Oblong, through a combo of 21st century business savvy and old-school outreach, has actually grown. In 2010, in fact, they expanded their Rhinebeck location. According to owner Dick Hermans, revenue is up.
“I’m more optimistic right now than I’ve been in several years,” Hermans says. “People are realizing the money they spend locally means a helluva lot more than the money they spend online that goes to some distant place and never comes back. More people are saying, ‘I’ll shop local, and my money will circulate in the community.’” When he began Oblong as a books-and-records business in Millerton in 1975 – the Rhinebeck location opened in 2001 – Hermans learned on the job, and he’s become renowned as a canny businessman. “Indie bookselling is survival of the fittest,” he says. “You really need to pay attention and watch your inventory. And we pride ourselves on having a really good selection of books. We keep track of all the publishers we can find, and make sure we have them.”
Crucial to the success of Oblong is Hermans’ daughter, Suzanna. (Both picture above right outside the new remodeled Oblong Jr. in Millerton). Fresh out of college, Suzanna, who’d learned to work the cash register at age 8, took over the Rhinebeck store at the beginning of the economic downturn. Undaunted, she oversaw the successful Rhinebeck expansion, and spearheaded many revenue-and-morale raising community events at the store. The book world noticed, and Suzanna Hermans was recently elected head of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. She also serves on the American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression.
“As a dad, I couldn’t be happier,” Hermans says, beaming down the line. “I mean, pinch me. I am the envy of most booksellers my age. I’ve talked to several at conventions and everybody says, ‘aren’t you happy?’ I say, damn right I’m happy. Suzanna brings a lot to the table. She’s a big reader, and she gets what it’s all about. She wants to advance not only our stores, but the whole industry. That’s pretty cool.”
As ever, the upcoming Oblong events calendar is chock-full of impressively curated readings at both locations, as well as Oblong-sponsored author appearances at Salisbury, CT’s Scoville Library, such as Simon Winchester, who will will speak about his new book, The Men Who United The States, on November 3 at 2 p.m. Hermans is also particularly enthused about nonfiction author Guy Lawson reading from and discussing his NY Times bestselling real-life thriller Octopus at Scoville on Saturday, November 16 at 2 p.m. “Guy is a local treasure,” says Hermans. “Quite an accomplished writer, with a great career, who’s still young. And Octopus is some story.”
Bestselling memoirist-novelist Dani Shapiro, an Oblong fan and Connecticut resident, is excited about her first Oblong gig on Sunday, November 17 at 4 p.m., “a rare Millerton store reading,” according to Hermans. She’ll be reading from her newly published Still Writing, which she says is “part memoir, part meditation on the creative process, part love letter to everyone who spends time alone in a room, trying to make something out of nothing.”
“I have spent quite a bit of time lurking in the stacks at the Oblong in Millerton,” she says. “It’s a real book lover’s bookstore. It’s designed in a way that makes browsing really comfortable. Browsing and happening upon books is becoming rarer and rarer – instead, we’re told by computer models what we ‘might like’ – and a bookstore like Oblong restores that sense of just stumbling upon a book that suddenly you need to read. And I love reading at independent bookstores. There’s an intimacy, a sense of all of us being in this together – readers, writers, booksellers – that is really special.”
Photographer Juliet Harrison, who launches her new book, Track Life: Images & Words, at the Rhinebeck location on November 16 at 7 p.m., worked at both Oblong locations for years, her favorite job ever. “Oblong encourages relationships with the customers,” she says. “We were readers helping readers find books they would love. What is better than that?” Harrison’s Track Life is a collection of her photographs of racehorses alongside track-related essays, poems, and remembrances by assorted writers. Hudson Valley scribes Mikhail Horowitz, Carol Goodman, and Nina Shengold will read their contributions. For Shengold and Goodman, it’s a return engagement.
“They get a great crowd,” Shengold says. “They’ve enlarged their children’s/teen section and created a thriving program of author events, including the very successful Hudson Valley YA Society series, which does that rare thing of attracting actual young adults – teen readers – as well as people who want to write YA. The staff knows and loves books, and they have a great music selection to boot.”
Clearly, Dick Hermans’ new hopefulness is catchy. Dani Shapiro echoes him almost word-for-word: “As an author,” she says, “I feel more optimistic than I have in a few years, because it seems booksellers have begun to think outside the box – to find new ways to attract dedicated readers. And I think that, as a culture, precisely because we spend so much time staring at screens, we’re hungry for community and experience. Independent bookstores are able to offer this. I predict, over the next decade, that these experiences – not straight-up readings, but a different kind of event that involves engagement, community, shared experience – will proliferate.”
Oblong Books & Music
26 Main Street, Millerton, NY
Montgomery Row, Rhinebeck, NY