Commentary: The irony of the Phoenix

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Irony – As a literary device, irony is a contrast or incongruity between expectations for a situation and what is reality… It can also be a difference between what might be expected to happen and what actually occurs.

If it weren’t for the loss of a beloved local institution, the irony would be delicious.  Less than two weeks before Phoenix Books announced that it would be “permanently” shutting down Misty Valley Books in Chester on Nov. 11, owners Michael DeSanto and Renee Reiner were featured in a Burlington Free Press advertorial sponsored by Pomerleau Real Estate.

A notice posted outside Misty Valley Books on Nov. 12. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

The point of the piece was to encourage people to shop local, and it hailed DeSanto and Reiner as champions of local, independent bookstores.

“Our mission is to preserve local bookstores and support the communities that host them. It’s that simple,” said DeSanto.

On Tuesday, Nov. 13, Misty Valley’s doors were locked, display areas were bare and books were stacked on the floor, presumably ready to be shipped to other stores or back to their publishers. It was that simple.

Just shy of two and a half years ago, we broke the story that DeSanto and Reiner had bought the 31-year-old Misty Valley Books from Bill and Lynne Reed, who wanted to retire and had begun to advertise the store for sale. The Reeds had planned to sell to someone who could keep Misty Valley as a local, independent bookstore. Phoenix Books looked like the right match.

“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,” DeSanto said in our interview with him at the time. “Anything we might do will be tweaking. When someone comes into the store they won’t say ‘what happened here?’ They shouldn’t feel anything has changed.”

Empty display areas and books stacked on the floors on Tuesday.

Since the closing was announced, we’ve heard a number of comments about the change from a welcoming place with cozy nooks for browsing and reading to a commercial space with “warehouse lighting.”

While 30 months ago, DeSanto said, “We want to empower our Chester employees to make decisions. You won’t see the long arm of Phoenix Books forcing issues with them,” former employees describe a top-down operation that placed little or no value on their knowledge of the local community.

“I could not work under the corporate ‘culture’ that they brought in and watch the obvious mistakes they made,” wrote former Misty Valley bookseller John Hoover. “I don’t think they (Phoenix) were at all sensitive to the needs of the communities …”

Understanding the community comes up over and over in the reasons that the Reeds were able to keep Misty Valley open for 15 years — into the age of Amazon. That retail behemoth tracks the wants and needs of its customers through data and algorithms; Bill and Lynne Reed did the same, but by personally knowing their customers. If Phoenix Misty Valley — stocked from the Essex store — under-performed, it’s no wonder.

“… if they lived here, they would know what inventory to stock,” Bob Flint of the Springfield Regional Development Corp. told The Telegraph last week. “They would know the heartbeat of the community.”

Last spring, just two years after the purchase, DeSanto told employees that the Chester store was not doing well and Phoenix would close it shortly. Employees asked him to wait and, a few months later, Amanda Bourque – a longtime bookseller at the store – negotiated to stave off a year-end closing by purchasing the business and leasing the space from Phoenix.

Then just last week, when Bourque could not reach a mutually beneficial purchase agreement with DeSanto and Reiner, her employment at Misty Valley was “terminated.” At that point, the other employees resigned. In a Facebook post, Phoenix Books said they had “unexpectedly experienced staffing issues” and would be closed.

The Phoenix, a mythical bird that is consumed by fire but rises from the ashes, is the namesake for DeSanto and Reiner’s business, and they came to Chester ostensibly to preserve Misty Valley Books. Ironically, they have left it in ashes. If they ever expect to be taken seriously as the mission-driven independent booksellers they claim to be, they need to find the way to bring it back to life.

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  1. And a final irony — at least as I am typing — the ad above the column is for Northshire Bookstore.

  2. Virginia Clark says:

    My daughter, who lives in Toronto, loved this bookstore. She is an editor/writer and has gone to Misty Valley every time she visited.

    She has said this small bookstore was one of the very best she had been in. Furthermore Lynne Reed often told me my book on local history “The Source: Popple Dungeon” was their bestseller. So I have reason to hope it remains open. It became a positive and friendly part of Chester’s culture.

    Virginia Blake Clark
    Westmoreland, N H

  3. Sorry for the loss of such a beloved institution. If you make it down the mountain to Manchester, we at Northshire Bookstore are honored to serve your book buying needs. We are family-owned, locally managed and very independent. You can get free shipping from our web site. Wishing you a great holiday season!

  4. Sharon Jonynas says:

    This whole thing is just such a shame. An empty building in the center of town is never a good thing. Amanda Bourque would have done a great job with the bookstore, and it’s really too bad that it didn’t come to be. So sad.

  5. Ian Montgomery says:

    Thanks Shawn and John for the above. I certainly used the expression “warehouse lighting” and am interested to see that others felt the same. Once that was in I no longer visited the store. To me the attitude from on high was off putting. It was no longer a Chester enterprise but a foreign one. My bookstore of choice is the one in Bellows Falls where I can browse, sit and where its owners know the area and the clientele.

  6. John Hoover says:

    Thank you, Shawn. You’ve summed up the events of the last 2 1/2 years in a way that brings clarity to a very emotional issue. You’ve done a great job of highlighting the rhetoric of 2016 with the reality of 2018. Misty Valley Books lasted for better than 30 years because the owners, first Dwight & Michael, then Bill & Lynne, knew Chester and the people who patronized the store. While Phoenix Books had started 3 new bookstores they had never taken over an existing store and their lack of experience showed.