Being Independent Pays Off: Owners of Phoenix Books Learn and Evolve11/24/2020 05:08PM ● By Phyl Newbeck
It’s not easy being an independent bookstore owner, but Michael DeSanto and Renee Reiner have made it work. The couple came to Vermont in 1995 and purchased The Book Rack and Children’s Pages in Winooski. They moved the store to Essex Junction but sold it in 2003. “We were aimless for about four years,” Michael says. When the new owner of the store fell on hard times, the couple considered buying it back and when that effort failed, they opened a new bookstore in Essex Junction in 2007.
Birth of the Phoenix
Christening their new endeavor Phoenix Books, the couple renovated the space to include a small café. They also sold wine and cheese plates and small, locally made goods. “It was never a question of could we be successful, but instead how big and successful would it be,” Michael says. The couple invested heavily in the 2,500-square-foot space but the lease ran out in 2017. Believing they would benefit from a larger space but wanting to stay in Essex Junction, Michael relocated the store to a Carmichael Street building that had previously housed Blockbuster Video. “Yet again we went into a space that needed to be fully renovated,” he says. The couple decided not to continue the café and wine and cheese since the store was next to a Dunkin Donuts.
In 2012, Phoenix Books expanded into the Queen City. “Burlington was content with Borders as a downtown bookstore,” Michael says, “but Borders closed a perfectly profitable business. When that happened, I decided I wanted to open a Burlington bookstore before some lawyer from New Jersey came up to fulfill their dream of doing that.”
Michael and Renee had discovered they had a difficult time sharing business responsibilities, so he had been in charge of the Essex store. Renee agreed to take the reins of the new store once they found a Burlington location. The couple bought the fixtures from the old Borders store and began to look for a suitable storefront. After they found a place on Bank Street, Eli Moulton, a specialist in community-supported investments, stepped in to provide a legal framework for a community-supported enterprise where Burlington residents would invest in the bookstore-to-be. Meetings with community members proved encouraging and several thousands of dollars were invested in the new endeavor.
Three years later, the couple was approached by Steve Costello who asked if they were interested in starting a store in Rutland. “That was the most fun,” Michael says. “I went to Rutland and laid out what I needed because we’d become more knowledgeable about the need for shared risk from the community. They told us they had already replicated what we had done in Burlington and 40 people had already committed $1,000.” A few more investors were added, including Tricia and Tom Huebner, with Tricia serving as managing partner of Phoenix Books Rutland.
The couple purchased another store in Chester which was not as successful, something Michael believes might have to do with having changed the name. They sold the Chester store and purchased the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, this time keeping the name and hiring Kari Meutsch and Kristian Preylowksi to take charge. “We keep learning,” Michael says. “That was a turnkey operation and it’s our most highly profitable business.”
Over the years, Michael and Renee have tried a number of things including adding a publishing arm to the business. They hold a variety of events including readings and book signings and have established a book club which allows members to pay $30 a year in return for 20 percent discounts on all subsequent book purchases. Although initially 25 percent of the titles sold were Vermont-based, that number is down to 10 to 15 percent, but Michael revels in the success of local authors like Archer Mayer, Chris Bohjalian, and Stephen P. Kiernan.
The Vermont Way
Book buyer Beth Wagner says that during March and April, Vermonters responded to the pandemic by purchasing books on cooking, baking, self-sufficiency, and DIY projects. “It started to shift this summer,” she says, “with the Black Lives Matter movement.” Beth says Vermonters have been buying books by and about Blacks including novels and biographies, as well as books on racial justice. This has included books by Vermont authors like Emily Bernard and Major Jackson. Additionally, political books like the ones written by Mary Trump and Bob Woodward have been flying off the shelves. “I feel like the interest in Vermont authors is tied into the overall support for Vermont bookstores,” Beth says. She praised Phoenix’s loyal customers for sticking with the store during difficult times. “You can feel the support every single day,” she says, “and that’s what keeps us going and gives me hope.”
Although the pandemic initially caused the closing of all the stores, they have all reopened with restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. “One of the things that allowed us to keep our sales within shouting distance was that we offered free shipping and curbside pickup,” Michael says. The couple firmly believes local bookstores, as well as other retail establishments, can and should be viable. “It is no secret that COVID-19 has assaulted small businesses and harmed our employees,” Michael says. “I believe in a small business-driven economy and its connection to a thriving community. If our Main Streets are to be more than boarded up shells of bygone days, we need to think about how we can restore, protect, and support our locally owned independent businesses.”
191 Bank Street
Essex Junction, VT