Interview with Annie Philbrick, Co-Owner of Bank Square Books
Anyone familiar with Mystic, Connecticut will be familiar with Bank Square Books. The self-described ‘locally owned and fiercely independent’ bookstore has been a firm presence in the coastal town for twenty-five years. One of the best-loved shops in Downtown Mystic, the store has shelves upon shelves of beautifully arranged books, ranging from the latest New York Times Bestsellers to quirkier staff picks. The store is charming and loved by Mystic residents and visitors alike. It is the perfect place to spend an afternoon browsing.
In an era when independent bookstores are in fierce competition with online retailers and Kindles, Bank Square Books surprised and delighted Mystic residents by expanding in October 2013. The store now has roughly double the retail space that it did this time last year.
I first visited Bank Square Books aged ten and I immediately fell in love with the store, leaving with a smile on my face and a stack of books which kept me going until my next visit. A decade later, I still love perusing the shop for the perfect summertime read. Returning to Mystic this summer, I was over the moon to discover Bank Square Books had expanded and I jumped at the chance to interview co-owner Annie Philbrick. I chatted to Annie about how she came to manage the bookstore, her favorite reads and how she goes about choosing the amazing range of books which line Bank Square’s shelves.
Annie is local to Mystic and her history with Bank Square Books stretches back some years. “The bookstore was a store that I always went to,” Annie tells me, “My son worked here all through high school.” In 2006, the previous owners of the bookstore were planning on moving to Los Angeles and Annie was working at the Small Business Development Center at the University of Connecticut, where she helped people start small businesses. “I just decided I would rather own my own business,” Annie says of her decision to buy the store along with two others, “The bookstore came up as a possibility and I thought that would be a great business to own. I like owning my own business and being in charge of my own destiny as much as I can. I love reading and I love books and I love hosting authors, we’re kind of like one big family here. We really are all passionate about what we do.”
This passion is evident as soon as you enter the store. Bank Square Books is incredibly welcoming and meticulously organized. The staff are always friendly and the book selection is wonderful. It helps the store is so successful: visitors come from miles around to buy books and literary gifts.
Annie explains she did not buy the shop expecting to make money, but nevertheless the store remains incredibly popular and sales are going up each year. Following the fall expansion, the store experienced their best Christmas ever. “About twenty, twenty-five per cent of the sales are kids’ books and about twenty percent of the sales are non-book items, like greeting cards and the other gift stuff we sell,” Annie explains. Certainly if you are ever looking to buy a gift for a book lover, Bank Square Books is the place to go: from beautifully designed bags featuring striking cover artwork for classics such as The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights, to ‘NovelTeas’, which are tea bags featuring tags with famous lines from literature.
Bank Square Books is also very involved in the life of Mystic. “We are a big part of the community,” Annie says, “We do a lot of events and a lot of collaborations with all the libraries and lots of other organizations.” This community spirit was heightened following the dramatic events of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The store was flooded during the storm and remained closed for three weeks. With help from numerous volunteers who helped move the books from the flooded store Bank Square Books reopened. Annie remembers this reopening as a triumphant moment for all of Mystic: “We came back and everyone was like ‘thank God you’re back, what would we do without you?’”
I am keen to hear from Annie how she and her colleagues go about deciding which books should grace Bank Square’s shelves. Annie, who is on the Board of American Book Sellers, does all the adult buying. Her colleague Kelsey April buys in the children’s books, whilst fellow employee Jane Herbert is responsible for all the gifts and greeting cards. Annie explains to me that she has sales reps from all the major publishers and she relies on them to help her pick which books to sell, but she also relies heavily on her own instincts: “Sometimes I’ve read a book and I really like it,” she enthuses, “Especially if it’s a debut author and I really want to support that book and that writer.” Annie is also aware that Bank Square has to cater for all: “Being in Mystic, especially in the summer, it’s touristy. So I have to buy for everybody, for the tourists as well as for the locals and the local literary crowd and the kids. We pretty much try to carry a little bit of everything.” I think most visitors to the store would agree with Annie that there really is something for everyone and that is part of Bank Square Book’s universal appeal.
With such a vast and impressive variety of books, I am keen to hear from Annie which books have been some of their all-time bestsellers. My question is greeted with laughter: “There are a lot of them!” Annie explains, “One that’s really selling well this summer is a new one called All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doeer, which is a wonderful story set in World War II. The British author JoJo Moyes also sells really well here. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker is also very popular. He has been here a couple of times, he’s a really nice guy and it’s great book.”
Annie says she cannot pick just one favorite book, although she generally prefers fiction over nonfiction. She says one of the best parts of her job is the fact she gets to read such a variety of books. “I love to read debut novels,” she explains, “Some are tough but some are really wonderful and they’re from a fresh voice. On the other hand, at some point I would love to go back and read more of the classics, because at the moment I don’t really have time.”
Annie is currently excited about the release of a new book, In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides: “He’s a great narrative non-fiction writer,” she says, “It’s a story about an unknown navy vessel that got frozen in the ice up looking for the North Pole and then they ended up over in Siberia. It’s fascinating.”
It is clear that for Annie and her colleagues, Bank Square Books is a labor of love. The day I interviewed Annie, Bank Square Books recently announced plans to open a new independent bookstore in Westerly, Rhode Island, along with Rhode Island business owners Dan King and Charles Royce. If the success of Mystic’s Bank Square Books is anything to go by, it seems likely this new venture will mean a wonderful new independent bookstore for Westerly which will be there for many years to come.
Bank Square Books is located at 53 West Main Street, Mystic and is open Monday – Saturday 10 – 8 and Sunday 10 – 5.