Feature Column: Independent Books, Independent Minds: Our Indie Bookstore Spotlight

by Writer Susan K. McCann, proprietor of Essex Books

Appeared in Volume 3 Issue 3

Photo of Gather © Jody Dole

In the book, The Potting Shed, author Linda Joan Smith writes, “In such a simple shed…the garden has its beginnings. We toil under its sheltering roof…intent on a single task. To nourish. To cultivate. To garden.”

In reflecting about my very small book nook, Essex Books, it is very much like a potting shed—not for plants—but for offering local and regional authors a brief opportunity to cultivate their works, to spread their words, and to bloom among their readers. I took over the very small independent bookstore, Essex Books in August, 2008, then located at 2 Essex Square, just as you make the turn onto the main street of the charming Essex, Connecticut, and right up the street from the Griswold Inn, the oldest continually operating Inn in America. Essex Books has now remerged as a tiny book nook in the back of the popular vintage store GATHER, 104 Main Street in Ivoryton, Connecticut, across the street from the historic Ivoryton Playhouse, where Katharine Hepburn performed in her early years. When I started out, I was excited, ambitious, and very hopeful that I would turn my little corner of the famous river town into an incredible bookstore for all to enjoy. A wise person came in one day—a message courier of sorts—and said to me, “You know, what you are really doing is offering a service to the community.” So, I gladly and gratefully embarked on this journey of “community service” by offering charming and cozy local author events to tourists, boaters, Ground Hog Day parade goers, fife and drum marchers, classic car motorists, Essex Steam Train riders, and to anyone in the community who wanted to attend.

As Smith writes, “But more than fledgling plants flourish beneath the potting shed’s roof. Gardeners grow here, too. We learn and experiment. We dabble in artistry and alchemy, chemistry and biology. We tune ourselves to the song of the seasons, learn the rhythms of weeding and watering, and revel in the wealth of the harvest.” In my six years of owning Essex Books, I’ve “dabbled” in the art of hosting hundreds of local and regional author events. The range of expertise of the authors has been intellectually nourishing and inspiring, and despite the changes in book technology, authors connecting to readers continues to stand the test of time. And what best connects the authors to our readers is their human emotional story and their connection to one another. There’s been the literary connectors to history; i.e., James “Buddy” Edgerton, co-author of The Unknown Rockwell, who lived next door to Norman Rockwell as a child in Vermont, modeling for him as the face of the veterinarian, military officer, and Boy Scout in Rockwell’s famous paintings; food editor Corin Hirsch (Forgotten Drinks Of Colonial New England); Emmy award-winning journalist, Diane Smith (Seasons Of Connecticut); Christopher Pagliuco (The Great Escape of Edward Whalley and William Goffe); Garrison Leykam (Classic Diners Of Connecticut), whose event we hosted at the Ivoryton Tavern; Eric D. Lehman and Amy Nawrocki (Literary Connecticut); James T. Powers (Saving The Farm), and Dr. Virginia Hale (A Woman In Business: The Life Of Beatrice Fox Auerbach), who told the history of G. Fox & Co. and its specialty of gracious customer service to our packed house of guests, who had either worked at G. Fox, or who fondly remembered getting dressed up and traveling to Hartford to shop or have lunch with their parents or grandparents on special occasions at the famous store.

Literary connectors to children’s books books have graced our shop, i.e., from award-winning illustrator Maureen K. Brookfield (N Is For Nutmeg and Yankee Doodle Numbers) to Jeanne Rollins (Greedy Gracie Shares the Happy) to New York and Mystic’s Tish Rabe, who was chosen by Random House and the estate of Theodor Geisel to continue to write the Dr. Seuss books.

Literary connectors to nature and adventure have shared their journeys with us, i.e., from Alex Ellison (A Star To Sail Her By), a teenager who, for five years, traveled 25,000 nautical miles on a sailboat with his family; to David K. Leff (Finding The Last Hungry Heart), and to David E. Morine (Two Coots In A Canoe: An Unusual Story Of Friendship), who canoed down the Connecticut River with a friend and talked about how they “relied on the kindness of strangers” along the way.

Literary connectors to art, music, interior design, letter writing, cooking, and antiques have dazzled us, including: John Sforza (Swing It: The Andrew Sisters Story); Alexandra Stoddard, the famous Stonington, CT and New York interior designer; Sally Ann D’Aquila and Carin Roaldset (Letters From Cornfield Point); award-winning cookbook author Jacques Pépin (More Fast Food My Way); cookie chef Julia M. Usher (Cookie Swap), and author Paul Ferrante, whose artist sister Carol Ferrante Young caught the attention of bestselling novelist, Harlan Coben, and lead him to interweave her painting throughout his book, Six Years.

There’s been the literary connectors to “going against the odds” and overcoming challenges, i.e., from John Guy LaPlante, the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in history (How Peace Corps Could Change Your Life. Yes, Yours!; Around The World At 75. Alone, Dammit!); to the granddaughters of Stonington Captain James Arruda Henry (In A Fisherman’s Language), who did not learn to read or write until his mid-90’s; to women who survived cancer (Susan Conley, The Foremost Good Fortune; Eileen Kaplan, Laughter is the Breast Medicine), and to semi-paralyzed local resident, Geoff Matesky (They Call Me Wheels), whose event we hosted in a small tent outdoors on a very wet and rainy day; huddling together to catch every word of Matesky’s poignant story. And, always, authors provided hopeful words and guidance for families, e.g., the Reverend Bob Flanagan (Growing a Soul).

As Smith notes, “It is the unassuming contents of these [seed] packets that are the potting shed’s symbolic heart. Seeds sprout and are nurtured here. Cuttings take root here. Tiny plants are potted on here—given larger quarters—and finally nudged into the garden.” Like the seed packets, when a bookstore offers author events, they become the symbolic heart of the store and of the community. And there have been several community collaborators who have contributed to the heart and soul of these literary events e.g., Bushy Hill Nature Center, Community Music School, Copper Beech Inn, Essex Coffee & Tea, Essex Corinthian Yacht Club, Essex Historical Society, Essex Park and Rec, Essex Library, Florence Griswold Museum, Ivoryton Alliance, Ivoryton Library, Ivoryton Playhouse, Lions’ Club, Safe Futures, and Weekend Kitchen, among others, have all helped to bring special programming to the little store or out into the community. Following the production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” at the historic Ivoryton Playhouse, for example, author M. William Phelps, The Devil’s Rooming House, talked to the audience and actors about the true Windsor, CT story behind the classic play. Essex Park and Rec, Lions’ Club, and The Ivoryton Playhouse helped to set up a faux campfire scene, around which the Bushy Hill Nature Center staff read ghost stories to young Ivoryton Pumpkin Festival goers. Essex Books has even decorated a bountiful holiday tree of books for the CT Audubon Society Eco Travel celebration.

As Smith summarizes, “In the end, the potting shed is simply a building, nothing more than wood and brick and stone…Like the garden, the potting shed is fertile ground. We harvest its bounty for a lifetime.” Like the potting shed, tiny, imperfect book nooks and big, beautiful bookstores will harvest more books, more authors, more words…readying to sow their literary seeds for another season.

Susan K. McCann has been the proprietor of Essex Books for six years. She worked at Sesame Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street, for 17 years and still does educational consulting for them. She is a two-term AmeriCorps volunteer, which is probably why she enjoys doing bookstore “community service.” She is the co-creator (along with LaFrancois Marketing Consultants) of The Big Book Getaway, an event series featuring bestselling authors that has been produced at Mohegan Sun, The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center (The Kate), and The Bee & Thistle Inn. She serves on the boards of Reach Out and Read CT, Region 4 Music Boosters, and Sister Cities Essex Haiti. She has one daughter, Annie Brown, an 11th grader at Valley Regional High School, who actually told her mom to buy Essex Books in the first place…or else it never would have taken seed.

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