Greene: The Book Cellar

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(HOST) For commentator Stephanie Greene, the recent Brooks House fire in
Brattleboro reminded her of both the importance of book stores – and a
bit of personal history as well.

(GREENE)  Brattleboro is a bookish town. It has three new bookstores and at least two used bookstores, plus an active library and a thriving literary festival. With a population of about 12,000, it must be the envy of bibliophiles in larger cities who watch with dismay as their local bookstores close.

The Book Cellar has been a touchstone in Brattleboro for more than 60 years, surviving a fire in 1962.  The fire sale ad declared, "Our singe, your binge".   There have been economic downturns, the effects of the Internet and most recently, a fire that started on the fourth floor of the Brooks House Building and will close the Book Cellar and all the other stores on the Brooks block for an estimated year.

The Book Cellar had its beginning in 1948, when it was opened by Sam and Ruth Lincoln at 185 Main Street, downstairs underneath Harold Estabrooks’ jewelry store. Although there had been well over a dozen stores that called themselves bookstores in Brattleboro over the years, they were not primarily purveyors of, well, books. They sold shoes, notepaper, yarn, newspapers, halters and even whips. But Sam Lincoln had it in mind to devote his stock primarily to new fiction, nonfiction and children’s books. Books were his interest, and his passion. "We are going to try to make a real bookstore in Brattleboro. The need has been great for a long time, " he declared.

Lincoln made good on his promise. The first event at the Book Cellar in July of 1948, was a book signing by Norman Rockwell. Growing up in New Rochelle, Sam Lincoln had been Rockwell’s paperboy. The event set a tone that has been maintained by subsequent owners, who have understood that a bookstore is more than just a retailer – it’s a cultural center.

My parents, Janet and Stephen Greene bought the Book Cellar and moved it to its present location at 120 Main in 1954.  They had that space redesigned by James Dawson, a well known bookstore architect, who also designed Dike Blair’s Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury and the Doubleday Bookstore in New York.

In its early years, the Book Cellar maintained a small gallery showing photography and paintings, anticipating Brattleboro’s successful monthly Gallery walks.

For a local bookstore is testimony to the need for culture in everyday life, evidence that the world of ideas can be accessible, no matter where one lives.  And its events provide a sense of occasion that simply can’t be duplicated on the Internet.

Lisa Sullivan, the Book Cellar’s current owner, is painfully aware of what’s been lost. But even though the store’s contents were destroyed, The Book Cellar will sell books through its website, continue to host events at other venues, and participate in Brattleboro’s Literary Festival in October. Meanwhile Sullivan weighs her options. "I want to honor the tradition of the store," she says, "to build on what we had and create a good future for the store and its community."
Will Sam Lincoln’s vision live on? We can only await the Book Cellar’s next chapter.

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