Misty Valley Books shut after staff apparently quits Local purchase of store from Phoenix Books abruptly ends

At 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Misty Valley’s evening lights remained on and the business closed. All photos by Shawn Cunningham.

By Cynthia Prairie
©2018 Telegraph Publishing

On Tuesday, Nov. 6, Phoenix Books Misty Valley in Chester was open. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, it was not. Sometime on Thursday, Nov. 8, it will open again, at least through the weekend. But when it will reopen again permanently is not known by the owners, who still hope to sell the business to a local buyer.

More than six weeks ago, Misty Valley bookseller and Andover resident Amanda Bourque began negotiations to purchase the bookstore while leasing the building from Phoenix Books, which itself purchased the store and buildings 2 1/2 years ago.

However, negotiations came to a halt late last week and,on Monday, Bourque, who had worked at Misty Valley for 15 years, left her employment with Phoenix Books.  By Wednesday, apparently so had the three other Misty Valley employees, leaving the business dark.

From left, Lynne Reed, Bill Reed, Renee Reiner and Michael DeSanto when the purchase was announced in May 2016

In May 2016, the landmark store, which has been a vital fixture of the Chester Green for 31 years, was sold by local owners Bill and Lynne Reed to Michael DeSanto and his wife Renee Reiner, owner of Phoenix Books, a Vermont chain based in Essex.

Included in that sale were the store building, an upstairs apartment and the attached home. The Reeds had owned the bookstore for 15 years, and had lived at various times in the apartment and the home. They were looking toward retirement, and purchased a small home across the Connecticut River in Walpole, N.H.

DeSanto and Reiner’s chain includes bookstores in Essex, Burlington and Rutland, as well as a partnership in a bookstore in Woodstock. At the time of the purchase, DeSanto told The Telegraph, “Our intent is to keep intact all the traditions surrounding the store while adding a few new ideas from our experience of owning and operating three other stores … When someone comes into the store they won’t say ‘what happened here?’ They shouldn’t feel anything has changed. … You won’t see the long arm of Phoenix Books forcing issues with them.”

The inside of the bookstore remained dark on Wednesday.

Also, to maintain some local ownership, DeSanto said he would be looking for a minority partner to invest in the store and play a role in the business, much like the partnership in Woodstock.

That local partner never materialized until Bourque stepped up. Bourque declined to comment for this article other than to say that “we entered into negotiations and we could not agree.”

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, DeSanto said that, following the failure of the negotiations, he had received emails from Misty Valley staff Tuesday indicating that they would not be opening the door, which he called a “surprise.”

DeSanto issued a press release Wednesday confirming the situation, writing that Phoenix was working toward having a “locally-based owner/manager … which, sadly, fell through” resulting in “unexpected staffing issues.”

DeSanto added that the store however will “have limited hours” from Thursday afternoon until Sunday, Nov. 11, when the store will hold a “final event” with Vermont author Archer Mayor. DeSanto expressed hope that someone else would come forward to “take the reins” of the store. He also said on Tuesday that he was open to selling the building.

A ‘corporate feel’ for a community business

As the only first-edition bookseller in the 44 miles between Bellows Falls and Manchester, the potential loss of Misty Valley Books is a blow to Chester, the surrounding towns and the myriad visitors it attracts.

The Phoenix Books flag outside of the Chester store.

And reaction to the closing was swift.

Chester resident Marcia Pease-Grant, who has continued to be a regular shopper at the store and found it shuttered on Wednesday, said, “I’m crushed. I went there all the time — mostly because the old staff was there. … Thank God they kept the old staff.”

She added that, under Phoenix Books, the store renovation eliminated “that really homey feeling,” and the selection of books  … I found there was less to browse through.” Pease-Grant added that she sensed that the selection was “all a commercial decision as opposed to a gut-level decision that the Reeds made because they know the community.”

She compared the atmosphere with the Reeds and the “old staff” as “sitting around a potbelly stove and talking … it was an extension of my sense of community.” Shopping became a “social event and not just a business transaction.”

This Misty Valley Books sign.

Windham resident John Hoover, a Misty Valley bookseller from 2016 2006 to 2017 who, for four years, also wrote a book column for The Chester Telegraph, posted on Facebook:  “It was because of the new owners that I resigned my position there. I could not work under the corporate ‘culture’ that they brought in and watch the obvious mistakes they made. I will miss the wonderful folks there, especially Kim, Amanda, Sara, and Anna and want to thank them for making Misty Valley Books the wonderful place it was.”

In an interview, he added, “I don’t think they (Phoenix) were at all sensitive to the needs of the communities …”

Bob Flint, of the Springfield Regional Development Corp., offered some insight into why a successful business such as Phoenix might not make it in a small town. “The reason it worked under Bill and Lynne (Reed) and before that Dwight Currie and Michael Kohlmann, is because they were local owners who were engaged in the community.

“It’s got to be a labor of love and not just during the hours it is open,  … even with the success and expertise that Phoenix Books” has with its other stores.  Phoenix Books bought Misty Valley, he said, because it was a successful business. “Their challenge was to make it go when they weren’t here  … if they lived here, they would know what inventory to stock, they would know the heartbeat of the community.”

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Mary von Dorster says:

    I fervently hope this works out, for the sake of Chester’s downtown.

    We go to Ludlow in the summer. For us, a very pleasant day trip was to go to the Chester bookstore, look at other stores and have lunch.

    For the businesses on the Green to survive, Chester needs to be a destination for tourists.

    The bookstore was key to this. It gave the Main Street some cachet, and helped all the other businesses have more traffic. For my family, the bookstore is the magnet.

  2. Bill Bourque says:

    Arlene Mutschler – You shouldn’t comment about circumstances you know nothing about. Phoenix had already decided to close the store and leave Chester. To blame the person who was trying to save the business and keep it open is more than unfair.

  3. Arlene, take a look at the commentary we put up today. It will answer your questions.

  4. Rick, are you looking for retirement job?

  5. Roderick Bates says:

    Bring back the IGA!

  6. Arlene Mutschler says:

    Whatever happened, the staff was loyal to the potential buyer, and former employee and now everyone is out of work and a store is closing. Dont know if we will ever hear the true story. I hope that buyer knows she is cause of 3 others leaving their jobs.

  7. Susan McNeely says:

    Correction: There is a first edition bookseller in Ludlow. The Book Nook is a wonderful bookstore with knowledgeable staff and owners.

  8. Michele, Sage Jewelry and Gifts says:

    This is such a blow to Chester. With this being said, I hope everyone bears in mind that there are other businesses in town and remember to shop local. Let’s support what is still here. Those of us with businesses on the Green need your help to thrive.

  9. Betty McEnaney says:

    Perhaps there is someone who can step in and rekindle the negotiations. Clearly the old staff and atmosphere were loved and the current owners no longer desire to operate in Chester. Hoping for a meeting of the minds.

  10. Kathy says:

    There was something about Misty Valley which invited a reader to stay, browse, and ultimately, purchase one or more books. Was it the small nooks created by shelving and the building’s original walls? It always felt as though I had the store to myself — even while others browsed.

    The owners and employees were helpful with suggestions, delightful to speak with and ever so kind to extend the Misty Valley bag discount despite my forgetting to bring it. A soul could walk in a stranger and depart a friend.

    Long before the 2016 acquisition, I had visited the Phoenix location in Rutland. It was wide open, no inviting books with chairs. The lighting was cold and commercial. While there appeared to have been more books, volume didn’t matter. It did not feel welcoming; it was impersonal compared with the warm, homey feeling imbued by Misty Valley.

    I visited Phoenix Misty Valley post sale. It saddened me, bringing to mind a childhood memory of visiting a beloved relative’s home after they’ve passed. Their possessions are moved, rearranged or disposed of, which didn’t soothe the loss, but amplified their absence. Phoenix, in my mind, did that to Misty Valley.

    My hope is that Misty Valley finds a new owner with a better sense of the community wants and needs.

  11. Bev Lauren says:

    So sad! Has been an icon on the Green. Will be missed along with Chester Flowers.

  12. Acacia peters says:

    This is so sad to hear. I hope someone steps forward. The number of times I spent tucked in the back reading room is invaluable.