Tuesday, January 8, 2008

"The Toadstool"

Sydney M. Williams
15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Note from Old Lyme
                                                                                                                                                                                      January 8, 2008
The Toadstool

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be
swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
                                                                                                                                            Francis Bacon (1561-6126)
                                                                                                                                            The Advancement of Learning, 1605

“A man ought to read just as inclination leads him;
for what he reads as a task will do him little good.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
                                                                                                                                             James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1791

“The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes;
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.”
                                                                                                                                            Rudyard Kipling (1832-1898)
                                                                                                                                           “Paget, MP”, 1886

Toadstool is a fitting name for a bookstore. One envisions a secluded, earthy, enchanted place forested with toadstools under which elves recline engrossed in new books. One evening in late 1971 or early 1972 several of us siblings gathered at our mother’s house to discuss the prospect of a bookstore. Normally, family conversations resembled the incoherence of a bunch of Parliament backbenchers with everybody speaking at the same time, but this time we stayed on subject. As my brother Willard recalls, another brother, Frank, first mentioned the name ‘Toadstool’. However, as Willard points out, there was “…what I think was a subliminal understanding of the name based on the cover illustration of the Golden Book of Fairy Tales” – a book all of us had read and one that Willard owns today with a cover depicting elves, engrossed in books, sitting under toadstools. So, in one of those marvelous happenings, which are not just coincidence, the name of the bookstore was derived from a book. The store opened in our hometown of Peterborough, New Hampshire in early May 1972. Willard, nineteen at the time and having recently completed his freshman year at Prescott College in Arizona, and our sister Jenny, then twenty-three and recently graduated from Sweet Briar, were in charge.

With $25,000 in capital the business commenced. Eight hundred square feet were leased in the Centertown Building at 3 Main Street. Shelves were constructed and stocked with 10,000 titles. Prior to opening, the cash register was placed in the center of the store on the assumption, as Willard said, if you show people trust they will be honest with you. An opening-night party was held for family and close friends. The next morning an inventory was conducted. Three books were missing. The cash register was moved to the front of the store – an inexpensive lesson in retailing.

Peterborough today has a population of 6,000, but back in 1972 it was closer to 3,000, not much larger than it had been 100 years earlier. Despite its small size, the village is the commercial hub for half a dozen surrounding towns. When I was growing up it had two pharmacies, a department store, a movie theatre, two or three grocers, a feed store, a hardware store and three or four auto dealers. The town boasts the first free public library in the United States and was part of the route of the Underground Railway. Frederick Douglas spent a night at the Moses Cheney house, once a stop on the road to freedom for a number of enslaved Americans.

The town has long had an artistic population, including my parents who were sculptors. The MacDowell Colony began operations in 1907 and is very much alive today. Marian MacDowell established the Colony to honor her husband, Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), a composer and pianist, who had been seriously injured a few years earlier. Alan Seeger, Padraic Colum, Edwin Arlington Robinson, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Dubose Heyward, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were among a host of artists, musicians, poets and writers who spent time at the MacDowell Colony. Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town at the Colony in 1937. Grover’s Corners is the name of the town in the play, but the stage manager mentions all the towns which surround Peterborough; Grover’s Corners is an amalgamation of those small villages. Peterborough has also long been a summer home to residents of Boston, including my father’s parents who bought a home in the area in 1910. As early as 1851, when rail service first reached East Wilton, NH (two towns to the east), one could leave Boston at noon, travel by train to Wilton and stage coach to Peterborough and be there by 5:00PM – about twice the time the trip takes today . The town has been home to a good share of academics and literary types. For example, Professors Elting Morison (American history), Harlow Shapley (astronomy) and Vannevar Bush (atomic energy) had summer homes in the immediate vicinity, as did scientist and inventor, Edwin H. Land (Polaroid). Authors Elizabeth Yates, Newt Tolman, Haydn Pearson and Elizabeth Thomas lived or live in the area; as did (and do) poets Allan Block, John Martin, Marianne Moore and Julia Older, along with illustrators Nora Unwin and Wallace Tripp. In the 1920s, Paul Robeson and Bette Davis performed and Martha Graham danced at the Mariarden Arts Colony. The Peterborough Players, a summer theatre, opened in the 1930s and brought many well-known plays and talented actors and actresses to the area. Growing up I recall seeing plays such as The Philadelphia Story, The Matchmaker, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Devil and Daniel Webster. This past summer James Whitmore returned to play a role he had originally played at the Peterborough Players in 1956 – Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

So it was not surprising that Peterborough would be a fruitful place for a bookstore. Willard, with the confidence of youth, stated in a 1992 interview, “We had no vision of failure.” During that first partial year the store generated about $25,000 in revenues and the first full year $40,000. At that early date Willard and Jenny paid themselves $10 a day and so the store was profitable from the start – perhaps a good lesson for many of today’s budding entrepreneurs, many of whom seem anxious to prematurely IPO their businesses. Willard’s original plan was to return to college, but like the Jimmy Stewart character, George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, he found himself inextricably enmeshed in the business. Over the next few years the Toadstool doubled its square footage. Each year’s sales exceeded the previous one and profitability persisted. Early on Willard was conscious of the rising trend toward superstores. He deliberately avoided competing with them, but, like them, kept building his inventory and looking to expand. His target town was a smaller place with characteristics similar to those of Peterborough. In 1983 he opened a second store in Keene, a community of 22,000 and the home of Keene State College. However, he decided not to open a store in West Lebanon, NH because of its proximity to Hanover and the Dartmouth College bookstore. Around 1984, Jenny, whose first love has always been horses, left to teach riding and skiing full time. Willard, today, credits her with much of their early success. About the same time Willard’s wife, Holly, began spending more time in the store. Today she does much of the buying, as her knowledge of customer wants keeps the shelves filled with appropriate titles. In 1989 a third store opened in Milford about 20 miles to the east. Eye-balling Willard’s success, Barnes and Noble, in 1990, opened a store in Manchester about fifteen miles east of Milford and Borders opened a store in Keene in 1992. In spite of this competition the Toadstool’s inventory of books and attractive layout continues to attract customers.

In 1992 Willard moved the flagship store to its current location, a 7,500 square foot former A&P supermarket – Depot Square – and increased the inventory from 30,000 books to 70,000. The building was owned by Yankee Publications and the Toadstool became the sole lessee. A few months later, amidst a recession and at his price, the Toadstool purchased the property. This location – the former railroad station - has a long and colorful history in Peterborough’s past. The Monadnock Railroad Company first provided rail service to Peterborough in 1871. While the rail tracks north of town were washed out during the hurricane of 1938, and never replaced, trains continued to come to the Peterborough station for another fifteen years. During my early years passenger and freight trains arrived once a day. My maternal grandmother used to visit by train. She would travel from New Haven to Springfield, change trains for Worcester and then change again for Peterborough. The last passenger train to leave the Peterborough station departed on March 7, 1953 at 2:05PM and I was on it. Two hundred and forty-eight people boarded the train for this historic final departure. Most, including me, got off in the next town, Jaffrey.

Today the three Toadstool stores carry a collective inventory of just under 300,000 books. Each store houses comfortable chairs. Aesop’s Tables leases space and operates a café in the Peterborough store and in Keene there is a food court in the Colony Mill Marketplace downstairs from the Toadstool. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly. The sense of enchantment originally envisioned is present in each store. While one may not see elves lurking beneath toadstools, many of the patrons appear comfortably ensconced in nooks quietly leafing through books. Despite the advent of Amazon and electronic books, customers continue to come through the doors. In 1992, Willard was interviewed by Elizabeth Yates for The Peterborough Transcript. The 87 year-old Ms. Yates was the author of over forty books including Amos Fortune, Free Man, which won the Newbery medal in 1951. During the course of the interview Willard asked her a question: “What do you think the future will bring for readers, for writers, for literature, for the art of writing?” Elizabeth Yates replied, “The book speaks to the mind in a manner that elicits response. As the speed and pressure of life increase, so will the need for books and solace, delight and inspiration.” There is little doubt in my mind that the Toadstool will continue to thrive.

With a $25,000 investment Willard created a business that over its life has generated in excess of $50,000,000 in revenues, sells close to $5,000,000 worth of books annually (or about $175.00 per square foot), employs 40 people and has a book value of $2,500,000. The Toadstool has paid out $75,000 in dividends and has retired one share (four percent of shares outstanding) for $80,000. Book value of the business has compounded at 14.2% for 35 years, almost twice that of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages. Today Willard sits on an advisory board of American Booksellers Association and was Business Leader of the Year in Peterborough in 1998. Most importantly he has provided himself and his family a good living doing what he loves. Willa Cather, another author who lived in the neighboring town of Jaffrey, once wrote, “Where there is great love there are always miracles.” The Toadstool qualifies. As Willard’s older brother, my pride knows no bounds and, as a shareholder, I am deeply satisfied.

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