So here’s a question: How did a woman who moved from southern California to Vermont because of a comic strip, and a photographer who used to drive a cab in Minneapolis, wind up running a venerable Main Street bookshop in Woodstock? Being front and center in a small town that visitors from all over the world think of as quintessential “Vermont”?
Kari Meutsch knocked around in college — started in mechanical engineering, set her sights on becoming a sound engineer, sidetracked into the music business, and finally settled on accounting. But she also took a job with Barnes & Noble and discovered that book-selling suited her. “I take great comfort in books," she says. “I love being able to escape into other people’s stories."
She was footloose, so got sent around — first to stores in Tennessee, then in Cincinnati, then out to California. That’s where a friend handed her a copy of American Elf, the daily-diary comic strip by James Kochalka that ran for years in Seven Days. “California wasn’t a good fit for me—I apparently really need seasons,” Kari says. “So I’m reading about this charming little town, and decided to plan a road trip.”
The itinerary? Fly into Burlington then drive down to Baltimore and visit lots of little towns along the way. The reality? She didn’t leave Burlington until it was time to hightail it down to Baltimore to catch her flight back west. “I loved everything about Burlington; everything felt like home,” she says. She wound up getting a job at the Barnes & Noble in South Burlington.
Meanwhile, Kristian Preylowski, who’d grown up in Middletown, New Jersey, was living in Minneapolis. A musician and aspiring writer, he started out working in a bookstore in a suburban mall—he’d always loved bookstores, record stores, video stores, any place where you could be transported by art. “It was the love of music and movies," he says, "and putting yourself in other people’s stories and lives, putting yourself in other people’s shoes and walking around.”
The bookstore gig didn’t last long, and he wound up driving a taxi—“driving cab,” as he puts it—partly as a way to gather character sketches. “Some nights were terrible, but the mix of emotions and stories and people you’d mostly not see again gave me a collection of stories,” he says. “You get pulled into people’s drama.” He was driving the day of 9/11. “It was panic. I grew up in that area, I was listening to it as everything was unfolding. Every few minutes I had a new person in the car, so we were experiencing this together. It was such raw emotion.” After some time working at a small family-owned bookstore, Kristian, too, ended up in Burlington--he’d spent summers growing up at his grandparents’ house in Milton, just north of the city--at Barnes & Noble.
It was not an ideal fit for either of them. Kari chafed at being told what and how much to sell by people in New York. Kristian butted heads with the higher-ups. “I always held firm to the belief that you have to think outside the box and take risks,” he explains. They bonded in the store’s manager meetings, where they first became allies, and then partners. Kari found her way to Phoenix Books, the independent Vermont chain with stores in Burlington, Rutland, Essex and Chester. Kristian went back to driving cab and then working at Photogarden.
One day two years ago, Mike DeSanto, who owns Phoenix with his wife, Renee Reiner, turned to Kari and said, “Hey, do you want to be a partner in a bookstore in Woodstock?” He’d been in quiet discussions with Susan Morgan, who owned Woodstock’s Yankee Bookshop. The store first opened in 1935, and is Vermont’s oldest continually operated independent bookstore. Morgan wanted to sell: After 15 years of doing everything, she'd realized the store needed fresh passion. "I’m tuckered out!” she explained at the time.
DeSanto’s offer was actually to Kari and Kristian together. “He wanted partners who were willing to move here and become part of the community,” Kari says. “He knew how important that is as an owner — to be present and understand the needs of the people you’re serving.”
It didn’t take much convincing. In her first job interview at Phoenix, Kari had told them her goal was to own her own bookstore. And when she and Kristian visited Woodstock, says Kari, “every shop we stopped in we were greeted so warmly! We went into Yankee and took a walk around. It was like magic. It just felt so right, immediately."
So here they've been for coming up on two years, come January. At first, they made no changes; Woodstock residents have a distinct sense of ownership about their stores. “There’s a sense of pride here in Woodstock, the shops you find here you can’t find anywhere else,” says Kari. Slowly, though, they’ve added new sections—graphic novels, science fiction, gender studies. They’ve been building out their collection of vinyl records. They just launched a website with online shopping. And they’ve worked hard to make the store a place where all kinds of readers feel embraced. “We want people to love what they’re reading, and don’t want them to feel like they are being judged for what they enjoy,” Kari says.
As they’ve woven themselves into Woodstock’s fabric, they’ve been struck by a few things. “This is by far the most literate community I’ve been a part of in all my bookstore travels,” says Kari. “I’ve never been in a community with so many book clubs. It’s shocking!” And those readers pay attention, Kristian says. “People are in tune and aware of what’s out and what’s coming out. They’re amped up.”
They’re also keenly aware of what having a small, independently owned bookstore can mean to a community. “It’s really important to have a place for people to go, a place to stumble upon new things they might not know they wanted or needed, to have a bookseller put a book in their hand that might change their lives,” says Kristian. “They’re willing to come into town, fight whatever terrible weather we’re having, and get their book. There’s some fierce loyalty to this bookshop!”