Bookstore takes a chance on downtown New London
New London — Who would have imagined it? At the height of a surging worldwide pandemic the city has accomplished what it’s been trying to do seemingly forever — attracted a new downtown retail shop.
Title IX, a pop-up bookstore, opened in early November thanks to rental assistance provided by the city through its share of funds from the federal CARES Act. The economic stimulus bill was passed by Congress last spring to provide assistance to workers, families and small businesses.
Located in the century-old stone cottage at the top of State Street, bookseller Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic and the Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, opened the shop several weeks ago with encouragement from Steve and Jeanne Sigel, who manage the next-door Garde Arts Center. The Sigels told Philbrick about the rental assistance program and made the introduction to Elizabeth Nocera, New London’s economic development coordinator.
“She’s agreed to stay for three months,” Nocera said, “with the hope that it will lead to a much longer-term rental.”
Through the program, Philbrick gets $400 toward her rent for three months after she agreed to keep Title IX open through the end of January. She’s open-minded about what will happen after that.
“None of us ever imagined coming into the fall season still in a raging pandemic and opening up a pop-up bookstore,” Philbrick said. But she added that she likes the idea of being in New London and will have to see how it goes and where sales are this winter.
The city’s last independently run bookshop, Monte Cristo, closed in 2015.
The pop-up bookstore’s name — Title IX — gives a nod to the 1972 federal civil rights law that protects people from discrimination based on gender in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.
The 1,900-square-foot shop offers an ample selection of social justice, diversity and LGBT titles, but also an array of bestsellers, cookbooks, children’s literature, and more. It was Savoy employee Kelsey April who suggested the name and helped to select books for the shop.
Olivia Dodd, who is running the New London operation for Philbrick, explained she can quickly get almost any title that a customer wants, overnight from Savoy or Bank Square, or within several days from one of their suppliers.
“I think a pop-up bookstore like Title IX is a place where anyone can come in and leave with something they are excited about,” Dodd said.
A 2017 Connecticut College graduate, Dodd said she is happy to be managing the bookshop.
“New London is a vibrant community with wonderful people and I am humbled to work here and be a part of it,” she said.
Business so far has been good and Dodd said the shop, open Thursdays through Sundays, is attracting passersby and those who have heard about it.
“People coming in are thrilled to have a bookstore here in New London and are excited to support us at this new location,” she said.
When the idea of the pop-up first surfaced, Philbrick said she was intrigued but knew she had to talk with her staff first to gauge their enthusiasm and interest.
“I said to myself, ‘I really have to find out if my staff has the bandwidth to do this because of COVID and everything else we are doing now. It’s not going to happen if staff won’t support it.’”
She approached her managers with trepidation, believing they “might look at me like I had five heads,” but instead, got a positive response. Dodd volunteered to take on the project and told Philbrick she was enthusiastic to get back to New London.
The stone cottage, now part of the Garde properties, was built in the 1920s on the Williams estate as a community house by Connecticut Power, according to the Garde’s website. The property is the perfect size, Philbrick said, not too big or too small, with off-street parking and interesting interior spaces to display books.
Nocera said New London has used its CARES Act funds for educational support, rental assistance and small business incentives, in this case, the rental subsidy. Through the program, a pop-up business owner may receive 50% of the monthly rent, or $400, whichever is less, for three months. Philbrick is the first to take advantage, but Nocera said she is engaged in talks with two other interested parties, a clothing shop and a performing arts coaching business.
“Our goal is that we hope these businesses will stay longer than the three months they committed to,” Nocera said. “The innovation of the strategy is that it reduces the risk.”
Philbrick has been a bookseller for 15 years and said “a bright star on the horizon is that more people are reading” as a result of the pandemic.
“There are definitely small bookstores that are closing, but also, there are others that are opening,” she said. “We have been lucky — our sales have been good … and our online orders have soared. We have one person now dedicated to handling just Web orders.
“So, opening a pop-up three months over the holidays just seems to fit,” she said.
Like her two other popular bookstores, Bank Square and Savoy, Philbrick believes Title IX can do for New London what every other good independent book shop does for its hometown.
"We provide a sense of community and a safe place for people to come and explore their literary diversity," she said. "And we try to bring a sense of community to the town."
What: Title IX, a pop-up bookstore
Where: The Cottage, 345 State St., New London
Hours: Thursdays and Fridays 2 to 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays noon to 8 p.m.
What else: Limited capacity for browsing, curbside pickup and local delivery, masks and social distancing required
Contact: Bank Square Books at (860) 536-3795
For information on rental assistance for pop-up businesses: Elizabeth Nocera, economic development coordinator, City of New London, (860) 437-6309
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