Still North Books and Bar in Hanover was just opening when the pandemic shut down operations, but the community rallied around the store.
When the Dartmouth Bookstore closed at the end of 2019, Allie Levy saw a business opportunity. Levy, who graduated from Dartmouth in 2011, had worked in retail and publishing in New York and Denver, but was always looking for a way back to the Upper Valley. Within a year of the bookstore closing, Levy opened Still North Books and Bar, an independent bookstore, coffee shop and bar in Hanover.
“I wanted to create this space to offer a [place] for people to gather, to come sit, read a book, have an experience, do a puzzle at our puzzle table,” Levy explained.
With so many facets to the business, Still North wasn’t fully opened and operational until February. For a month, business was going great. Levy had hoped that eventually books and other merchandise would make up half of revenue, with food and beverage making up the other half. She thought that food and beverage sales would be stronger to start, but was pleasantly surprised to be just about 50/50 during that first month.
“Book sales have always been stronger than I envisioned,” she said. “I underestimated how much people want to make sure that there’s an independent bookstore in Hanover.”
That would become essential when the pandemic shut down Still North in March. Levy hadn’t planned to focus on a website until the second year of the business, but she quickly created one to fulfill and ship orders. With time, Still North reopened for browsing by appointment, and later for drop-in browsing.
Levy began selling coffee and baked goods again, but hasn’t restarted beer and wine sales. That portion of business was targeted toward students, and with most students off campus and ongoing concerns about the virus, Levy has opted to keep alcohol sales paused. However, she hopes to be serving again by patio season in the spring and summer.
Luckily, despite losing half of her revenue streams, book sales have been able to cover the loss on the food and beverage side. Right now, 90% of revenue is from merchandise sales.
“Book sales have been well over what I projected,” Levy said.
She previously worked in a book store in Denver and thought she knew what to expect, but the Hanover community reads even more veraciously than anticipated, especially while stuck home in quarantine.
“It’s New England,” Levy said. “We like to be cozy and read books. Hanover is a really intellectually curious community. “
At first, Levy wasn’t sure what her customers would want to read, but she’s learned they’re willing to give almost anything a chance. That’s allowed her to take chances on stocking lesser-known books.
“That’s been really fun,” Levy said. “It’s helped make our selection a little more robust.”
Right now, Still North Books and Bar doesn’t sell any textbooks, other than the occasional special order. Levy is exploring whether she’d like to stock textbooks in the future, but hasn’t yet decided.
Despite the successes of the store even during the pandemic, the year has been trying for Levy. Being a 31-year-old entrepreneur launching her first business in 2020 was no small feat. But community support and networking with other independent bookstore owners has helped Levy deal with the challenges.
In early January, Levy took some time off, going back to a curbside-pickup model to give her and her seven staff a bit of a break and extra energy to focus on projects like cleaning and inventory.
“We had a really busy holiday season, and we all found ourselves, with the news and COVID, needing a little of a break,” she said. “It gave us a chance to catch our breath.”
With a vaccine on the horizon, Levy is aiming for a second year that is a bit more calm than her first.
“I hope we have the opportunity to learn what being a bookstore, cafe and bar looks like in Hanover when there’s not a pandemic,” she said. “A lot of the testing of the concept that happens during the first year in business, it was radically different for us. I look forward to this space being used for what we envisioned it as.”
This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.