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Bookshop’s latest chapter

TOADSTOOL: Bookstore continues to adapt, even as competition evolves

  • Willard Williams, the owner of the Toadstool Bookshop, talks about the 41-year history of the store in his office at the Toadstool's Peterborough location.
  • Willard Williams calls the Toadstool's Milford location to locate a book for Alison Bird of West Townsend, Mass.
  • Willard Williams calls the Toadstool's Milford location to locate a book for Alison Bird of West Townsend, Mass.
  • David Vernier of Peterborough pays owner Willard Williams for his book purchases at the Peterborough Toadstool Bookshop.
  • Beth Draper of Peterborough considers Archie comics and Mad Lib books as possible gifts for her visiting nephew, Gabe Draper, 12, of Hudson, Ohio.
  • Gabe Draper, 12, of Hudson, Ohio, selects some books from the Peterborough Toadstool while visiting his aunt in Peterborough.

PETERBOROUGH — The Toadstool Bookshop has weathered all kinds of competition — the mall, the rise of big box stores, and now, online shopping and the e-reader. And in a book-shopping world where “browser-friendly” is more likely to describe an online storefront than a brick-and-mortar one, the Toadstool has remained successful by staying true to its roots as a welcoming spot to browse the shelves.

What started as a small family business run by Willard Williams, the current owner, and several family members more than four decades ago has grown into a regional presence with busy locations in Peterborough, Milford and Keene, boosted by a loyal customer base that by and large prefers to browse the shelves of a real bookstore.

When the Toadstool Bookshop first opened in 1972, its big competition was mall bookstores, such as Waldenbooks or B. Dalton. But Toadstool took a different approach to bookselling, said Williams. The store cultivated a browsing atmosphere — putting in sofas and carefully selecting a large variety of books instead of taking up shelf space by carrying dozens of the most popular sellers. The Toadstool had found a market that worked. It worked so well, that Williams was able to open two additional stores, one in Keene in 1983, and the other in Milford in 1989. While he can’t man all three storefronts, said Williams, he does try to keep consistency in other ways, doing all of the ordering for the stores and retaining long-term employees who become familiar faces for regular customers.

For some time, this was an atmosphere that carried them through — until the ’90s, when book superstores became a reality. The wide variety that Toadstool was known for was no longer a unique trait. Those superstores could carry so much more stock that Toadstool just couldn’t compete with the selection. Williams said it was just a matter of being very selective in the stocking process. While many bigger stores will send large amounts of unsold books back to wholesalers, Toadstool’s return rates have always been low, said Williams. This was also the time that Williams added a used section to the Peterborough store, again in an effort to increase variety and to offer out-of-print titles. People seem to enjoy the particular variety Toadstool offers, which may be why the Keene Toadstool has stood strong even as its most direct competitor in the area — Borders — went under in 2011.

In its more than 40 years of business, the Toadstool has made few changes to the way it conducts business, said Williams. With the growth of the Internet, the business has made tentative forays into the online world. They created a webpage, became active on Facebook and offered some ebooks purchases through its website. But Williams said he will always see Toadstool as a physical presence. And there is still a market for that, he said, though Toadstool has experienced limited growth in the past 10 years as online shopping and book downloads became more mainstream.

“It places challenges on retailers, because in past years, income hasn’t grown much, but all your other costs go up. So you have to be more efficient in what you do to make a profit,” said Williams.

Part of that, he said, is to capitalize on the store’s local and independent status. The Toadstool stocks most local authors, including those who self-publish. All three sites also hold frequent author events.

“I’m trying to ensure a great experience,” said Williams. “I want this to be a place people enjoy coming to. In general, bookstores across the country are trying to engage in a conversation about the experience of being in the store. In a quick walk-through, hundreds of titles can catch your eye that you didn’t know existed, and wouldn’t have known to search for on the Internet.”

There have been changes made to accommodate the changing times, said Williams, including putting in many more special orders for in-store pickup than he used to. But for the most part, the business model has stayed essentially the same as when the business opened in 1972.

“The great thing about the book business is that there’s always new titles on the table, so it’s never stagnant in here,” said Williams. “The way we do business doesn’t really have to change. We’re still all about books.”

Quality, variety, and a good atmosphere have been what has carried Toadstool through, said Williams.

“This is a very literary area,” said Williams of the Monadnock region. “And there are so many different interests and a willingness to read from a wide demographic of people. We get an age range of kids to grandparents. Kids literature, young adult and adult literature all do well here. And it’s a wide variety of subjects. That’s what makes it full. You can sell a book on raising pigs one minute and philosophy the next, and sometimes it can be to the same person.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.

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