Nantucket Bookworks Celebrates 50 Years Of Serving Island Readers

David Creed •

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Nantucket Bookworks celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this month and it prompted the question of what has been the popular island bookstore’s key to success. Manager Suzanne Bennett has worked for both former owner Patti Claflin and current owner Wendy Hudson. She believes the bookstore's lack of visible change over the years has allowed it to thrive.

“In a world that is ever changing it is nice for people to be able to come into Bookworks and count on what is going to be there and who is going to be there,” Bennett said. “When we redid the building in 2014 I think people were really scared and nervous about what they were going to find when they came back. A lot of things can change here on the island and they are not what they were after renovations.”

Bennett recalls a woman entering the store the first week of it being reopened and the emotion the woman showed upon seeing the newly renovated interior.

"She stood there and it actually makes me upset when I think about it, but she sobbed because she was so joyful that it was the same as she remembered it,” Bennett said. “This woman was literally in tears of relief and joy that it remained the same. Sure some things got moved around a little but it still has that same milk and cranny, wandering kind of feel.”

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Claflin opened the store on July 4, 1972. It originally was stationed where the Corner Table Café now sits on Federal Street before moving to its Broad Street location. Claflin said she began to stay open late at night shortly after opening, which prompted one of her favorite memories.

“One evening a couple of Nantucket police officers came into the old store,” Claflin said. “Keep in mind back then there weren't as many things open and we had only four channels to choose from on TV, so I think people wanted something late at night to grab their attention. There was a complaint that came in one night that something was going on that was illegal at my store and that I must have been selling drugs because so many people were coming and going from the store. I had waitressed for many years so I knew so many of the trades people and members of public safety, and so I recognized one of them and he just looked at me, then started looking at books, and he says ‘this is a great store. I love this place.’”

Claflin said many authors, writers, and avid readers who visitied or lived on the island supported her store from the beginning. From Mr. Rogers to Russell Baker, the support was strong from the beginning.

“They supported Mitchell’s too but I think they just noticed that I was trying to do something different,” Claflin said. “I always had it set up as a maze so people felt like they had their own little corner to go to. It has that intimacy I think a lot of stores don’t have. You go into Bookworks every time thinking you are going to find something but you never know what you’re going to find.”

“A lot of kids grew up going to Bookworks and kept going there with their kids as they got older. I think that nostalgia has something to do with it, why people keep coming back, and why it is still going strong today.”

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Hudson began working at the store for Claflin in 1995 and bought the store in 2000. Claflin said she began to lay the groundwork for Hudson to take over the store a few years before the official transfer. Hudson said she is proud of the relationship the store has with organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, but would like to see her store have an even greater impact on assisting Nantucket students with their education.

“I hope we can adapt to serve the population here like the elementary kids and our youth and people coming from other countries where English isn’t their first language,” Hudson said. “I think a big thing is the community piece. That is one of the most fulfilling things about owning a bookstore."

Hudson purchased Mitchell's Book Corner on Main Street in 2012 to put the two stores under the same ownership. She believes this relationship has allowed both stores to provide better service.

“I think a lot of people don’t even realize they are under the same ownership because we have continued to try to keep them the same,” Hudson said. “But I think we can serve our customers better because if we don’t have the book in one place, we can check and see if we have it at the other across town. We try to have a Venn Diagram of our inventory so we don’t have too much overlap. Of course the best sellers and the classics will sell in the same places, but we try to keep them as unique to each other as possible. We want to offer different things. At Bookworks, you may have more like finding kid’s novels while at Mitchell’s you may find more book on travel.”

Bennett said she believes the partnership gives island readers more options.

“I always tease and say Mitchell’s is Manhattan and we (Bookworks) are Brooklyn,” she said. “I think our bookstore can be thought of as more of a lifestyle book store. I’d say Bookworks is stronger in philosophy and religion books. We also have the kids room and our little chocolate store.”

Hudson said she has enjoyed working with independent booksellers across the country and reiterated the importance of them to a functioning democracy. When it comes to a particular book she remembers flying off the shelves faster than any other, she points to the midnight sale of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

“It is really hard to think of a book that generated that kind of excitement,” Hudson said. “Seeing the kids grabbing their copy at midnight and the emotion on their faces, that was just the best.”

Bennett said what keeps her going at the store is the people she works with and the customers she meets such as the woman who weeped upon seeing the uncanny resemblance before and after the store’s renovations. She said one other memory stands out about Bookworks that personifies what the store is all about.

“I don’t think people who don’t live on this island are familiar with this kind of bookstore and so this family came in and this little boy was holding his Mom’s hand. He was five or six. He was just looking around at everything, hadn’t even gotten to the back room, and he just looks at his Mom and said ‘this is like a fairy tale’,” Bennett said. “That is one of my favorite stories because people come in here for a little bit of a break from their world. It is a really gentle, peaceful place. A lot of people come in here saying that they aren’t even in there to necessarily buy anything, they are just in there to take a break from work and to unwind.”

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