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Bank Square Books goes big

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published May 14. 2013 4:00AM

Indie book store emerges as author destination

Go ahead. Sit down in Mystic's Oyster Club and slurp down a few on the half-shell with your newest pal, the world-famous author. Discuss intricacies in plotting and characterization as you laugh and banter through the seared blackfish course. Oh - and of course get your books autographed.

It's all part of the program - at least one of the programs - when you attend an author event sponsored by Bank Square Books in Mystic. The popular, longtime shop, whose employees are more than aware of the e'er-changing dynamics of the publishing and retail businesses, are at the forefront of a wave of creative marketing by independent book stores.

Taking a cue from Madison's R.J. Julia Booksellers - an outfit with a popular legacy of signing events starring bestselling as well as local writers - Bank Square has committed to developing its own reputation as a tour stop for big name authors as well as locals.

"It's very hard to develop an author program, even if you're a big chain store or in a big city," says Annie Philbrick, who co-owns Bank Square Books along with Patience Banister. "Obviously, R.J. Julia has a terrific history, and they've earned an established brand. And while our markets overlap slightly, we also believe we have a supportive local community here that would appreciate the opportunity to meet authors."

In that spirit, Bank Square is developing its own spin on the template; cozy in-store luncheons with writers, the aforementioned supper club motif at Oyster Club, and "bundling" offers where fans get special prices on event and merchandise packages.

Dan Meisner, co-owner of Oyster Club, says, "When Annie approached me with this idea a year ago, I was confident the series would be a home run. The caliber of the writers that have joined us - coupled with the quality dining experience that Oyster Club provides - makes for a truly memorable experience."

Meisner points to another twist on the theme: bestselling cookbook author/eight-time James Beard-winning chef Colman Andrews has appeared twice; guests ate a meal of his design during his presentation.

Too, bookstores often co-op with libraries for projects, as with Bank Square providing books for sale when authors appear at schools or One Book/One Region presentations.

For example, Thursday evening, Bank Square and the Groton Public Library are co-sponsoring a reading/signing with bestselling crime writer Dennis Lehane.

And, on Wednesday, Bank Square Books and Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas are co-sponsoring a live streaming appearance by the uber-bestseller Dan Brown ("Angels & Demons," "The DaVinci Code") from Lincoln Center. The presentation is the only event Brown is doing in support of his latest and long-awaited novel, "Inferno."

Among other major publishing house writers who have appeared recently at Bank Square signings or events are Andrews, Suzanne Palmieri, Hallie Ephron, Ann Hood, Stonington's Susan Kietzman, JoJo Moyes, Nichole Bernier, Norwich's Cassandra Giovanni, Geraldine Brooks, Michael Haney, Allegra di Bonaventura and, on Monday, Amy Brill.

Upcoming author appearances include James T. Powers and Eric D. Lehman (11 a.m. Saturday, in-store signing), Cathy Pelletier (1 p.m. Saturday, in-store luncheon), Literary Luncheon with New England Authors Nichole Bernier, Juliette Fay, Randy Susan Meyers, MJ Rose and Dawn Tripp (noon Sunday, luncheon at Mystic Noank Library), and Bob Dotson (6 p.m. Monday, dinner at Oyster Club).

For Bank Square employees, events such as these are more like rewards than work. Book Folks tend to be not just avid readers but also fans - and to get to help arrange and be on hand when a famous author comes through is similar to a bat boy who works the visitors' dugout and gets to hobnob with the stars of every major league team that comes through.

The main goal of all of these efforts, of course, is to help keep the business afloat. It's no secret that independent bookstores suffered substantially in the last several years in the wake of super chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, as well as online retailers like Amazon.com.

The recession didn't help - but it also didn't help Borders, either. Gradually, a sort of roots movement of loyal readers rallied to help support favorite indie stores like Bank Square and R.J. Julia. Recently, Monte Cristo Bookshop opened in New London and has thus far impressed with its own series of poetry readings and events featuring touring authors as well as writers from the city's fertile arts scene.

Philbrick says the resilience of the indie stores against the big chains has resulted in a sort of "us versus them" mentality.

"Naturally, even between independents, it's somewhat competitive here and there. But we want each other to succeed as part of the bigger picture," she says. "We each develop a community presence and rely on that loyalty. I don't think you'd want another bookstore to open across the street, but otherwise ..."

In that spirit, when Bank Square was seriously damaged in Hurricane Sandy and forced to temporarily close, loyal customers and local citizens pitched in to help employees move 100,000 books to dry ground.

Similarly, folks at R.J. Julia - which survived the storm unscathed - came up with an idea. Readers submitted accounts of why they loved local bookstores and how reading had changed their lives. Responses were so voluminous and touching, said R.J. Julia marketing director Kirsten Hess in a press release, that they published a special book, "The Independent Bookstore - Why It Matters," and donated all proceeds from sales of the first edition to Bank Square Books.

"That was obviously a wonderful gesture," Philbrick says. "Again, it shows the character of indie book people. It goes beyond that you just happen to enjoy reading."

While the strategy to stage author events has been successful, it's not a particularly easy series to establish. Author tours are not as prevalent as they used to be; they're expensive for publishing houses, for one thing, and there are new online marketing and promotion ideas constantly in development.

Finally, it's true that most stops for authors that do still tour are traditionally reserved for big cities or folks like R.J. Julia who have developed a history.

Philbrick says they use an online event grid that allows them to put in author requests to a network of publishing house publicists who have been, she says, delighted with the innovations Bank Square is utilizing - including what they hope will be summer gardening events.

Still, it seems an idea worth pursuing. At the fall conference of American Booksellers Association Book Expo, Philbrick attended an event called "How Do You Do Events?"

The speaker was Chuck Robinson of Bellingham, Washington's It Takes a Village Books - one of the most progressive, proactive and successful indie bookstores in the country.

"His message was pretty simple," Philbrick remembers. "Just keep doing events. Don't worry so much about how successful each one is, particularly early on. Keep on. Do them the best you can: local, national, small press, self-published ... Just keep doing them."

IF YOU GO

Who: Dennis Lehane

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Groton Public Library, 52 Newtown Road, Groton

What: Bestselling author discusses his latest novel, "Live by Night." Sponsored by Bank Square Books and the Groton Public Library.

How much: Free as space allows; books will be available for purchase, and a portion of the proceeds benefits the One Boston fund.

For more information: (860) 441-6750, grotonpl.org (Groton Public Library), (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com (Bank Square Books)

IF YOU GO

Who: Dan Brown

What: "An Evening of Codes, Symbols, and Secrets." Streaming of author's only "Inferno"-related appearance from the Lincoln Center, New York.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas, 27 Coogan Blvd., Mystic

How much: free

For more information: (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com

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