A common refrain from Middlebury’s new customers Monroe Street Books is “I should have quit years ago,” according to employee Timm Williams. The Used Book Emporium is the definition of a hidden gem, albeit hidden in plain sight.
The unassuming Red Barn Warehouse is on Route 7 about two miles north of Middlebury. With no foot traffic on the rural stretch of the highway and motorists speeding by at 50 mph or more, it’s easy to miss, especially for southbound travelers. A row of trees on the north side of the property obscures the store until it’s almost too late to stop.
Certainly, second-hand bookstores are not uncommon in the Green Mountains. the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association, of which Monroe Street Books is a member, lists nearly 25 physical stores statewide. With 100,000 volumes on the shelves, however, arranged in complex logic, the Middlebury store offers avid readers the pleasure of seemingly endless browsing.
Towering 12-foot bookcases fill most of the cavernous space. The upper shelves are only accessible by self-service ladders. Almost floor-to-ceiling shelving also spans three of the perimeter walls.
Scattered around the shop are other receptacles filled with books – rolling carts, milk crates, steamer trunks. The store’s concrete floor, exposed duct work, and hanging strips of fluorescent lights make it feel a bit like being in Disney’s Belle library. The beauty and the Beast crossed with a fallout shelter.
“The building is big enough that you can really lose the people you came with, like you would lose a toddler in a supermarket,” Dwight Garner written by e-mail. A Middlebury College alumnus and contributor to Burlington’s first alternative weekly, the avant-garde pressGarner is now a literary critic at the New York Times. A longtime fan of the store, he called it “one of America’s greatest second-hand bookstores, period.”
In addition to those 100,000 books on the shelves, Monroe Street Books has an additional 50,000 titles available only online. On a recent Monday morning, 18-year-old employee Williams sat down among dozens of children’s books and vintage classical music CDs that are kept just off the sales floor.
Books sold online are usually the most fragile, he explained: “If they’re in the store and they’re handled over and over again, their condition depreciates.”
Williams sports several silver rings, a pearl necklace and a studded bracelet; his eyes are lively and curious. A book collector and seller for decades, he was a longtime customer of the store at its original location on Middlebury’s Monroe Street, which opened in 1992. Now he works in the store daily.
The original space was small, Williams said. The store’s owners, Dick and Flanzy Chodkowski, moved to the new location in 2004 because their inventory exceeded the old store’s capacity.
In 2018, Dick Chodkowski told the Addison County Independent that the couple opened the original location behind their home after moving to Vermont from Los Angeles. Coming from a career in advertising, Chodkowski had amassed a collection of books on graphic art and photography.
At the time of Addy Indy article, mail order made up nearly half of the store’s annual sales, according to Chodkowski. On a recent call, he said those numbers haven’t changed much. During the summer tourist season, he noted, when his store is a prime destination for out-of-state visitors, in-store sales tend to increase.
As the store acquires new titles through estate sales, donations and other methods, sections grow and shrink, Williams said. If he discovers an increase in titles on the same theme in a genre or subgenre, he can create a new section to contain the overflow.
More is always better, he continued, joking that empty shelf space is something “you just can’t have”.
Despite its massive stock and daunting space, Monroe Street Books “is actually meticulously curated”, Chris Bohjalian written by e-mail to Seven days. The best-selling author, who lives in Addison County, is a regular at the store.
He said his recent purchases at Monroe Street Books have included vintage novels, non-fiction books and safari magazines, such as 1960s titles by Robert Ruark. Uhuru and Use enough weapons: big game hunting. The books helped Bohjalian research his next novel The lionessout May 10.
Some categories of the library are ultra-specific. Rows of books covering virtually every country and region take up considerable space. In “mystery” you will find “historical mystery”. A section devoted to American presidents presents dozens of books on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Vintage science fiction paperbacks are prominently displayed on a wheeled rack and pinned in plastic sleeves at the ends of the aisles.
There is a sly spirit in the way some books are organized. A section on maritime disasters is adjacent to that on pirates. In “games”, a small section dedicated to “mind games” is on the top shelf. It’s awfully out of reach without the help of one of the many ladders scattered around the store.
The shop also sells posters and vinyls. On my way out I spotted and grabbed a copy of Bronski Beat Truth action Double actiona chance find given that the British synth-pop band’s co-founder Steve Bronski died on December 7, 2021.
Keeping track of what’s on the shelves is a delicate and dynamic process, Williams said. While online stock is electronically cataloged, in-store merchandise is not. If a customer asks for a specific title, one of the store’s four employees must scour the shelves to find it.
“If you have any questions, ask everyone who works there. They know the place,” Bohjalian wrote. “I have no idea how, but they do.”
Williams said the store does not currently acquire new titles except through donations. (During my visit, a man stopped by with a large box practically overflowing with children’s picture books.) However, in late spring or summer, staff will have to start buying again to restock the shelves. .
There’s no magic formula for how they choose what to buy, Williams said. But the price is quite easy to determine. Chodkowski said he uses the aggregate website Add all to quickly compare prices from all the major online booksellers. Although the pandemic has reduced in-store purchases somewhat, “it’s kind of balanced out by people reading more during this time,” he said.
The store can never have too many copies of timeless classics such as Moby-Dick and Slaughterhouse-Five. But obscure titles can be just as appealing. Off the cuff, Williams noted odd discoveries such as the collected works of underage Polish poets and period pamphlets on the creation of threads.
“We welcome people here who have very specific tastes,” he said.
Some customers come for works from individual publishers such as Germany’s Taschen, known for producing large art books. Bohjalian said his wife, artist and photographer Victoria Blower, tried his hand at the art of experimental collage. Monroe Street Books is her go-to for retro and vintage imagery.
“Where can you find the Seventeen A magazine’s guide to girls’ etiquette from 1971 or a scouting manual from 1950? wrote Bohjalian.
Monroe Street Books is a digger’s paradise. In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, the store is keeping things grounded in the physical.
“We still have a totemic connection to paper books,” Bohjalian wrote. “Just surrender. Fall down the rabbit hole and be happy.