Shelf Space: Books on the Common

We talk to the store’s co-owner Ellen Burns

Ellen Burns and Darwin Ellis

Books on the Common, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, credits their 30-plus years of success—surviving chain bookstores and the rise of Amazon—to a loyal customer base that considers the general bookstore an essential part of the New England town. Here, Ellen Burns, who co-owns the store with Darwin Ellis, talks about their “reading rabbit,” an event with Roz Chast, and how a liberal staff manages politics in polarized times.

How would you describe Books on the Common to the uninitiated?

Books on the Common is a big store in a little space—we pack a lot of titles into our 2,100 square feet—about 18,000 books. We want to offer a large selection for browsing and discovery, so we’re the opposite of the Amazon stores where all the books are face-out. We’re in a historic, 120-year-old building that has charm and character, and we want our selections to reflect that character.

If Books on the Common were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets? 

Our physical icons include an ornate antique easel announcing new arrivals at the entrance to the store and a “reading rabbit” metal sculpture that greets our customers on the front step. Our religion? To help engage people in reading rather than spend their time on their smartphones and computers. There is a lot of competition for people’s leisure time, and it’s our mission to make reading books a big part of that.

Which was your favorite event? 

A 2014 event with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast to launch her award-winning graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz narrated a slide show of her book, and the audience was rapt—alternating between uncontrolled laughter and tears.

Shelf_booksoncommonHow does the bookstore reflect the interests of your community? 

We buy with our customers in mind, knowing their interests and preferences—that goes without saying. But we also feel that it’s our job to encourage reading outside of what our community’s interests might be. Ours is not a very diverse community, so we try to make sure our books are from diverse authors—not just from the U.S., but foreign authors in translation as well. On politics, it’s been interesting since Trump’s election. Our community leans somewhat conservative (although Trump did lose in Ridgefield), and we and most of our staff are extremely liberal. We’ve sold a lot of anti-Trump books (The Trump Survival Guide has been a big seller), along with books about the Women’s March. No complaints from Trump supporters yet. We do carry conservative political writers, too—we try to be, like Fox says—“fair and balanced.”

What are some of the bookstore’s top current handsells?

A perennial store favorite is Gabriele Zevon’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Also Mothering Sunday (Graham Swift), Nutshell (Ian McEwan), Nobody’s Son (Mark Slouka), and everything by Tom Perrotta and Stewart O’Nan. For newer books, it would be Hamid Mohsin’s Exit West, Peter Spiegelman’s Dr. Knox,and books featured in the 2017 Indies Introduce program: History of Wolves (Emily Fridlund) and Rabbit Cake (Annie Hartnett).

For kids, in picture books we love Mother Bruce (Ryan Higgins) and There’s a Bear on My Chair (Ross Collins); for middle readers, some of our favorites are classics (Betsy-Tacy, A Wrinkle in Time), and others are more current (The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate and The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill). For YA, The Book Thief (Markus Zuzak)is a store favorite, along with the YA edition of Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown), E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, and everything by John Green.

Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie. 

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