Northshire Bookstore might have new owners, but that should be the only change customers will notice.
“[You’ll] walk in and it’ll feel like your familiar, comfortable, wonderful Northshire it’s always been,” said Clark French, one of the new owners. “Northshire is not going to change and there doesn’t need to be any apprehension about that because we’re just going to continue the legacy that we’ve been lucky enough to inherit.”
He and Lu French, his wife, along with Jon and Tom West, recently took over the business from the Morrow family, which first opened Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont 45 years ago.
“This is a bittersweet watershed event for us to be sure, but one we are confident will be seamless and beneficial to the welfare of the bookstore and its service to the several marvelous communities it serves,” said founders Ed and Barbara Morrow in a statement.
Clark and Lu, both Manchester residents, will be the more customer-facing owners. The couple has a rich background in both business and real estate. Toward the start of his career, Clark French ran a chain of surf shops and clothing stores and for the past 25 years, he’s run French & Co. with Lu. They’ve built hotels around the globe and closer to home, like the Taconic Hotel in Manchester. Recently, they’ve focused more on local projects.
“We just bought and renovated our old historic library building and bought the old library and renovated that. Now there’s a wonderful restaurant there,” Clark French said. “We’ve been involved in lots of local projects but this is our first bookstore venture, but we are quite connected to the community and probably most importantly we have a genuine passion for books and an appreciation for other people who have a passion for books.”
His love for books started at an early age, and he can’t remember a day since he was a teen where he didn’t take a few moments to read.
“I’m one of those folks that reads minimum 100 pages a day. During COVID, that went up a bit because we had a little more time on our hands. I’m typically [reading] at least two books a week,” French said. “For me, reading it’s almost like the most comforting thing that I do every day.”
He tends to favor fiction, especially authors like Mark Halprin and John Irving, though he occasionally reads nonfiction. He’s also become a book collector over the years.
“Since I was a teenager, I’ve collected signed first editions,” French said. “When I was quite young, that really appealed to me because not only did the writer write this book, but then he held this actual copy in his hand and he signed it, and that’s something that’s very real and tangible to me.”
His collection focuses on 20th-century literature, including writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“I became familiar with different book dealers; I became familiar with different types of bookstores that would often get signed editions so I’ve purchased many, many books over the years and through that you get a relationship with and an appreciation for booksellers,” French said.
The idea to buy Northshire started with a conversation with Chris Morrow, the founders’ son, who has run the stores in Saratoga Springs and Manchester in recent years.
“When thinking about selling, my main worry was always finding someone (or two) who had the right sensibilities as well as the chops; someone who appreciated The Book, the art of bookselling and our amazing staff and who also had the background, energy, vision and resources to carry the bookstores into future decades,” Morrow said in a statement.
After an initial conversation, Morrow found that Clark and Lu fit that description.
“It wasn’t a thing where they listed the business and had a broker; it was just two families who know and like each other and had a common interest in books, having conversations over coffee and dinner that evolved into us becoming the new stewards for the bookstores,” French said. “That’s really how we look at it. Although, maybe legally you own a bookstore but really you’re just taking care of it for the next generation because when it’s been around as long as the Northshire has, you feel a real sense of responsibility to keep the wheels on the wagon. You wouldn’t want to be the folks that took over a beloved bookstore and then ran it off the rails. So we take the responsibility very, very seriously.”
Becoming stewards of the bookstores, especially during the pandemic, is a daunting task, though it helps that many of the employees have years of experience.
“Some of the employees at the Northshire have been there 10 years, 20 years, some even 30 years. So I think if it wasn’t for the strength of those dedicated, professional, experienced employees, we wouldn’t have taken it on because we probably would have been too intimidated,” French said, adding that Northshire’s 50-plus employees are not just the best in the area at what they do, they’re the best in the country.
While the pandemic has been tough on many local businesses, French said that Northshire has remained strong.
“I think it’s just a matter of rolling up our sleeves and being aware of the fact that we’re still going to be dealing with COVID in some form and trying to balance the safety aspect, the health aspect with the social and the community aspect of running a community center that is a bookstore,” French said. “We’ve made it through COVID so far. We’re solid, we’re strong and we’re excited to just start seeing people again.”