Edgartown Books owners turn a new page, decide to close

Edgartown Books is located in a restored whaling captain's home. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Martha’s Vineyard, home to many writers with national and international reputations – the late William Styron, David McCullough, Tom Clancy, Henry Louis Gates, Geraldine Brooks, and Edward Hoagland come to mind – has been able, until now, to support two independent bookstores. Edgartown Books in Edgartown and Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven have long business histories as booksellers.

But David and Ann LeBreton, for a decade the co-owners of Edgartown Books, will shut their business this spring. They will leave behind what is actually a 30-year legacy. They bought the town’s Bickerton & Ripley bookstore a decade ago, after its 20-year business life in a smaller Main Street space.

“It’s more of a personal decision than a business one,” Mr. LeBreton explained this week. “The timing was right to move on.”

Finishing one another’s sentences, the husband and wife partners sound regretful but matter-of-fact about their choice.

For Mr. LeBreton, “Ten years is a long time when you’re my age. I turned 60 last August. I have about 10 more years to be fairly active and productive. We’ve done our thing. Our boy will be off to college next year, and my mother is 92.”

For Ann LeBreton, “We felt a responsibility to the town. We feel we’ve done it. If a bookstore will continue, it’s someone else’s turn.”

The LeBretons recall their favorite moments, running a cozy, welcoming bookstore in a prime spot in downtown Edgartown. They laughingly recount the travails of purchasing and renovating the former whaling captain’s house, bolstering the floors to support hundreds of pounds of bound paper.

“We were just like anyone else,” Mr. LeBreton added. “We didn’t have experience in bookselling. We bought the business and made it work.”

“It was a really wonderful experience all along the way,” Ms. LeBreton said. “Famous or not, I loved meeting everyone.”

Well-known novelist shares the feeling

Andre Dubus 3rd, the Massachusetts born novelist, author of “House of Sand and Fog” in 1999 and “Townie” in 2011, contributed to the experience Ms. LeBreton talks about. He participated in the August 2011 Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival at the Chilmark Community Center – “one of the very finest I’ve ever attended,” he says. He remembers the event and the LeBretons — especially Mr. LeBreton, “smiling widely and shepherding people inside” — and appreciates the implication of the store’s closing.

“The loss of the independent bookstore, Edgartown Books being the latest victim of this plague, is a blow not only to the reading public but to published writers everywhere,” Mr. Dubus wrote this week. “We absolutely depend on the independently owned bookseller the way human blood depends on capillaries and veins and arteries. Articulate, informed book lovers, for the most part, do not work anywhere else but in the local library, another imperiled institution.”

As the former owners of Kirkus Reviews, a digital and print publication that reviews 5,000 books a year, to help readers, booksellers, libraries and the publishing industry find good, new books, the LeBretons were no strangers to books and authors. But owning a bookstore was never the couple’s fantasy. After selling the Review in 1999, they simply stumbled upon a new opportunity.

“It was serendipitous,” Mr. LeBreton said. “We were at a small gathering in Edgartown and heard the bookstore was for sale. It seemed like a great thing to do.”

While Edgartown Books was, as Ms. LeBreton calls it, “mayhem” in the summer, winters in town grew increasingly more desolate. “We’ve lost all the guts of town,” she said, sounding mournful. “It’s a trend. Nationally, online retail sales were up this past Christmas. Retail is changing.”

Both the LeBretons say they hope that news of the closing will spur another book lover to come forward. They’d like nothing better than to see Edgartown Books keep its doors open with a new owner. Though the business (not the building) was listed with a real estate broker in the recent past, there were no takers. Mr. LeBreton says that there were “stops and starts, conversations that didn’t go anywhere.” Their hope is that the closing announcement and the “Space Available” sign in the window will jumpstart some activity. And, although they had to learn the business through trial and error, both say they’d happily stay on to guide someone over the learning curve. If no buyer emerges, they say they look forward to renting the 2,200-square-foot space to a tenant for the summer.

Island residents react

The closing will be a loss to the dozen or so employees who came and went as the seasons demanded. But it will also be a loss to the Island’s many authors who depended on Edgartown Books to promote their latest work and to stock volumes they wanted to read.

Kate Feiffer, a children’s book author and Oak Bluffs resident, said, “This is depressing, but not surprising, news. The LeBretons were great supporters of local authors, and the closing of Edgartown Books will impact us all.”

Holly Nadler, freelance writer and owner of the departed Sun Porch Books in Oak Bluffs, points to the difficulty of operating a year-round business in a seasonal economy and the country’s ongoing recession as two major hurdles.

But Ward Just of West Tisbury, author and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the O. Henry Prize, sees technology as a key factor threatening traditional bookstores like Edgartown Books.

“The closing of Edgartown Books is a cause for real sadness,” he said. “The pressure from the Kindle and its clones poses a formidable challenge to the traditional bookstore, with its sales clerks and overhead.”

The new bookseller reality

While the LeBretons downplay the effect of e-books and Amazon.com on their business, they admit that it’s difficult to measure the specific impact. “Yes, people have Kindles,” Ms. LeBreton said. “But they still enjoy coming into the store and living in the moment.”

The 1990s revealed an early threat to independent bookstores in the rise of big chain stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. Then, the Internet boom later in that decade hurt, with online start-up Amazon.com cutting prices and shipping books nationwide without adding sales taxes to the bill. Finally, the e-book or digital book in 2007, with the launch of Amazon’s Kindle, wounded independent booksellers across the U.S., often mortally. Borders, once a pioneer among chain booksellers, disappeared from the landscape in a 2011 bankruptcy, erasing more than 1,200 locations and 11,000 employees.

“Brick-and-mortar bookstores” like Edgartown Books, but also those larger and smaller, continue to feel the pressure.

Dawn Braasch, owner for the past three-plus years of Vineyard Haven’s 40-year-old Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, also finds the news of the LeBretons’ decision disheartening. “Any day an independent bookstore goes out of business is a sad day, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Part of Ms. Braasch’s job these days is to explain the implications of their choices to her customers. “Helping people understand that when they use my brick-and-mortar store to do research for what books they want to buy and then go home and buy from Amazon means that my store will go away and they’ll soon have no place to go look at books,” she said.

“I do see the e-book, as well as Amazon.com, as the primary threats to bookstores,” Mr. Dubus said. “My own belief is that drastic moves need to be taken by the publishing industry to try to keep e-books from entering the market at least until a hardcover book has been out for one full year, the way the less expensive paperback has been traditionally handled.”

To combat the fallout from e-book sales, Bunch of Grapes has launched a new store website and is now offering e-books for sale online.

Like a stone skipping across a pond, the LeBretons’ announcement has caused more than a ripple in the life of Jan Pogue, owner of Vineyard Stories, custom publisher of some 20 Island-related books. “When one small business goes out here, it often impacts others, and I’ll be impacted,” she said sadly.

West Tisbury resident and author of four nonfiction books, Paul Schneider sums up his reaction to the news this way: “God save the Bunch of Grapes.” An Essay by Mr. Schneider, occasioned by the Edgartown Books announcement, appears this morning on the OpEd Page of The Times.

Clarification: Edgartown Books continues to operate on winter hours and is expected to remain open through the spring.