Interview with a Bookstore: Bank Square Books
A Beloved Bookstore founded by the "Three Witches"
Bank Square Books has been in downtown Mystic, Connecticut, since the late 1980s, when it was purchased by Stuart Lamson and Martha Linda Smith. The store previously existed as another bookstore by the name of Mystic River Books, and had also been a gas station and a bike shop. In 2006, current owner Annie Philbrick’s then 16-year-old son was working as a bookseller at Mystic River Books, and Annie stopped by to pick up his check. That day, Annie mentioned to Stuart that if he ever wanted to sell the bookstore, he should let her know. “I am selling it,” he replied. “Do you want to buy it?”
Six months later, Annie, lawyer Patience Banister, and teacher Jane Hannon—who were loyal shoppers at the previous bookstore and friends—formed Mystic Books Inc. and purchased the bookstore. The trio quickly became involved in the small coastal community and, as the new owners of the town’s beloved bookstore, were nicknamed the Three Witches. They were careful not to change too much of the bookstore in the first year, but they later expanded the space to include the neighboring store, which had been a sporting-goods and fishing shop. Now Bank Square Books is 6,000 square feet and includes an event space and offices above the bookstore.
What's your favorite section of the store?
Elissa Englund (event coordinator): We have an amazing Staff Picks section. I shopped at the store for years before working here, and so many of the books I’ve read and loved have come from the recommendations of our brilliant booksellers. Now that I work here, I spend even more money shopping our staff picks, but now I get to recommend my own as well, which is really fun.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Kelsy April (children’s book buyer): I would add so much. Realistically, I would expand the teen nonfiction section and also create a middle-grade nonfiction section. Basically, I’d like to break out the age groups a little better, and include all sorts of sections for the different age groups. I’d most definitely create a section for educators’ resources. I’d also have way more bilingual and foreign language books. Unrealistically, I’d add a fitness facility and a juice/protein shake bar with LOTS of squishy chairs.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Virginia Ballantyne (bookkeeper and former bookseller): We really have the best customer service. I know a lot of people say that, but at Bank Square Books, we don’t look at people as customers; we really look at them as friends and fellow book lovers. Our customers come in here and take staff out for lunch sometimes. They come here for the staff; that’s how close we all are. It’s not a stagnant store, where nobody talks to you. We’re all friendly, happy people who are having fun, and we wouldn’t be there without the people on the other side of the counter.
Who's your favorite regular?
John Francisconi (bookseller): During a particularly hectic shift two Christmases ago, a woman asked if I could help her obtain a board book in German, for a grandson who lived with his family in Berlin. After some searching, we found a colorful German-language numbers and letters book. She had a handwritten list of all her relatives who needed gifts, and I helped her find something special for each of them. After she crossed off the last name on her list, I asked if there was anything else I could help her with. She replied, “Yeah, what should I be reading?” That’s essentially been the pattern for each of her subsequent trips to Bank Square Books, though the nature of our interactions has become less formal and more friendly. She herself has remarkably eclectic taste in books and is open to almost anything I have to recommend. She’s receptive to my line of taste-checking questioning (What are some of your favorite books? What are some places you’ve visited, or would like to visit? How comfortable are you with books that will make you feel despair?). She’s the kind of shopper our store depends on, and I’m happy to say that here in Mystic, we have many customers just like her.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Annie Philbrick (owner): During Tropical Storm Sandy, the store flooded, and we had to shut down for a while to completely gut the store. The community all came together to support us, and some of our loyal customers volunteered to help us clean up and shelve books. It was probably one of the hardest moments of owning the bookstore, but with the community support, we were able to rally and reopen in three weeks.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Thomas MacMahon (bookseller): When I was a kid and the Harry Potter books were coming out, I would come into Bank Square Books for the late-night releases. There were so many people all over the town, crying and screaming that they’d be able to read the next part of the story! Once, Hagrid came by on his motorcycle—if only he had the cake.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Annie: I’d be riding my bike to another business I own, or living on a tropical island endlessly reading books.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Annie: I really wanted to own my own business, be in charge of my day, and have a lifestyle where I could ride my bike to work or walk to work and not punch a clock. What surprised me is how much I really do love it.
SLIDESHOW: Bank Square Books Staff Recommendations