Home News and Features Amid the Floodwaters, A Celebration Deferred:Bear Pond Books’ Fiftieth Year

Amid the Floodwaters, A Celebration Deferred:Bear Pond Books’ Fiftieth Year

Left, Claire Benedict (purple shirt) and Rob Kasow (white shirt), co-owners of Bear Pond Books, in the middle of flood cleanup on July 12. Photo by John Lazenby.
It was an eerie, almost prophetic choice of words. 

On July 7, a pleasant Friday morning in Montpelier, Claire Benedict, co-owner of Bear Pond Books with her husband Robert Kasow, reflected on the challenges they had faced during their 21 years as booksellers, and the reasons Bear Pond had proven so resilient, so reliable, and so enduring. One of those challenges, she said, had simply fizzled out.

“The Kindle never became as big as people predicted it would be. When they were new, it was like, ‘This will be the death of the book! Everybody’s going to be reading on their devices!’ That did not come to pass. E-reader sales leveled off ten years ago.

“So,” she summarized, “we’ve weathered storms like that.”

Seventy-two hours later a horrendous storm — not of the metaphorical but of the meteorological variety — did what Kindles couldn’t. It sent floodwaters coursing through Montpelier for hours on end, wiping out virtually every downtown commercial enterprise. Bear Pond Books, at 77 Main Street, was among them. Its welcoming, recessed doorway between book- and card-filled picture windows; its front tables where newly published books attuned to Vermont’s reading clientele were featured; the checkout counter where unfailingly polite clerks asked “Are you in our Reader’s Club?”; the “Staff Picks” table, the “Vermont Authors” display, the nooks dedicated to discrete subject areas (History, Politics, Poetry, Spirituality) … and the floors! Those creaky wooden floors that implicitly welcomed nostalgia and contributed to a cerebral atmosphere for musing among the muses … all wiped out by a torrent of river water set on rampage by an ungodly amount of rain that also overwhelmed the city’s subsurface infrastructure, turning storm drains into geysers that added their despoiled water to the chaos above.

Wiped out, like the Three Penny Taproom and Katie’s Jewels, the Quirky Pet and Capitol Stationers, Woodbury Mountain Toys, Onion River Outdoors, and Julio’s Cantina. The United States Post Office. Everything familiar, everything Montpelier.

But what does “wiped out” mean? Does it mean “terminated”? In some cases, certainly. But not in all, and like many Montpelier merchants, Benedict and Kasow are determined that the flood will not wipe out — as in terminate — Bear Pond Books. Along with the physical toil of reconstituting their establishment they have set about fundraising, which includes appealing to their friends and patrons to help finance their daunting restoration.

“The store is currently gutted,” they wrote on their website. “We don’t even have walls right now … So many people have asked if they could donate or support us in some way, and the answer is yes.” They then listed ways that people could contribute, through donations, gift cards, and online shopping. (For an update see bearpondbooks.com).

Destroyed books and other debris piled behind Bear Pond Books on July 12. Photo by John Lazenby.
One thing that cannot be restored, however, is the timely celebration Benedict and Kasow were planning for August 5 and beyond, to mark the 50th anniversary of the bookstore’s founding in 1973: half a century of cultivating an uncommonly reciprocal relationship with readers whose loyalty has kept the store thriving — Amazon and e-books and Barnes and Noble and their ilk notwithstanding. 

Will there be a 51st commemoration instead? Maybe, but the 50th got rained out, big time. 

* * *

Michael Katzenberg isn’t precisely sure when he first opened Bear Pond Books, but knows it was early August, 1973. (More memorable was what happened a few days later, when a car crashed through the front window. Miraculously, no one was hurt.)

Though an avid reader, and always drawn to the hushed ambiance of bookstores, he had never imagined owning one. Raised in Westchester County, New York, he cast about for a suitable occupation after graduating from Williams College, ended up taking education courses at Castleton College in Vermont, then landed a job teaching seventh- and eighth-grade English at public school in Stowe. 

There he encountered fellow Williams graduate Chris Bryant, who had just opened a small bookstore and named it after a pond tucked inconspicuously into the slopes of Mt. Mansfield. The idea of a partnership developed, and Montpelier beckoned as a promising market for a second Bear Pond Books. 

“We thought that would enable us to buy collectively from publishers and get more favorable terms by ordering bigger quantities,” Katzenberg recalls. 

The partnership didn’t work out, but with the idea percolating, he scouted for a site in Montpelier and found a building at the corner of Main and Langdon streets owned by Fred Bashara, where an IGA food market was going out of business.

“The space at that time seemed a little overwhelming,” he says. “When we started the store our inventory filled up, I would say, not even half the front part of the store.”

To make ends meet, Katzenberg rented out space in the back to a string of tenants, one of which was the first, tiny iteration of another signature Montpelier business, Onion River Sports. In front, a local artisan displayed hand-crafted pipes on an empty wall. “We needed the income!” Katzenberg says.

Over time, business picked up, and Katzenberg had the opposite problem: the seemingly cavernous space had become too small. So in 1992 Bear Pond Books moved across Main Street and down a few doors toward the fire station.

“We ran out of space,” he says. “That was the major reason why we left.”

It’s important to note that “we” now included Linda Prescott, whom he had married in 1980. Her association with Bear Pond at first was peripheral; having earned a master’s degree from UVM she worked as a reporter for The Times Argus and later held positions at the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Technical College. 

But when they moved Bear Pond Books up the street to what had been Gray’s Small World dress shop, everything changed. It wasn’t just because the new, larger space would require more staff; it was the circumstances of the move that crystallized the importance of fully throwing their lot in together.

On March 11, 1992, a winter’s worth of ice, fractured into chunks as large as trucks, jammed against the Bailey Avenue bridge during heavy rains, sending waters from the Winooski River over its banks and into downtown. As luck would have it, it was moving day for Bear Pond Books.

“We had two flooded spaces,” Prescott recalls. “Our old place was flooded and we lost about a third of our inventory. And we were also renovating where Bear Pond is now, and that was underwater. At that point it was obvious that I needed to become fully involved in the business.”

Once they had recovered she took on tasks, from the creative to the mundane, to help the bookstore thrive, and she remained thus engaged until they sold the store to Claire Benedict and Robert Kasow in 2006.

* * *

Bear Pond’s story, however, is not a tale of a bookstore rising phoenix-like from serial flooding disasters. It’s the story of a store and its people creating an enduring relationship with its community. Bear Pond has done that by knowing what its customers desire and providing it.

For a bookstore, that means inventory.

Michael Katzenberg claims no expertise in this area. Mostly, he says, he stocked the kinds of books that interested him.

“The initial inventory, Chris [Bryant from Bear Pond Books in Stowe] helped me order because I had no contacts at the time. Chris had a deep interest in eastern religion and Buddhism, so right from the start we had books like that, and people were very happy to find those kinds of books here.”

“There’s also poetry and literature,” Prescott injects.

“Those, and nature writing and history and politics,” Katzenberg adds. “Also, I had an interest in philosophy and philosophy books, so that section really grew way more than it should have.” He laughs.

“Also, the travel section was interesting to me. We probably had too many travel books as well!” (Prescott gently renounces her husband’s modesty. “Michael was brilliant at ordering. He just had this real sense of what the community wanted, and very often it matched what he wanted.”)

The continuity of those subject areas with what the Benedict/Kasow ownership carries now is striking.

“We have two buyers,” says Claire Benedict. “An adult buyer, which is me, and a children’s-book buyer, Jane Knight.”

(Jane Knight, incidentally, gets kudos from many parents for helping them navigate literature for their children.)

“We’ve been doing this long enough that we know what our customers are looking for,” Benedict says. “They like to cook, they like nature, a lot of mystery and fiction. We have a kind of progressive, socially conscious crowd. Like, we have a spirituality section, not a religion section. People want books on all different kinds of spiritual material — it might be Eastern spirituality, it might be Wicken, but not so much writings of the Catholic Church. That, I think, is very much a reflection of Vermont.”

The children’s section, too, is … well, very non-Floridian.

“Again,” says Benedict, “I would say we have a lot of books on nature and exploring the natural world. We also have right now a lot of books for kids of all ages who are exploring LGBTQ themes, gender-identity themes, and that is very well received here.”

Benedict then puts her finger on another element that knits her and Kasow’s store to the community they serve.

“People here have always understood the principle that if you want to have a vibrant downtown you need to support local stores. I think Montpelier is a kind of unique community, which is why we’ve been able to keep going all these years.”

* * *

When Benedict and Kasow migrated north from Boston in 2002, it was to purchase Rivendell Books, which had succeeded Bear Pond at the corner of Main and Langdon. It had changed hands before, and in fact had a brief incarnation as Rivendell Books and Wine, merging passions undoubtedly shared by others in the community besides the owner.

There, Rob Kasow developed a specialty in used books, many purchased locally. Not only did that provide a resource for people seeking older volumes — plus, those who considered throwing books away to be nearly criminal — it also diminished any sense of competition between Rivendell and Bear Pond.

“The stores seemed complementary,” says Benedict. “Bear Pond referred people to us when they didn’t have a book, and vice-versa. It was a pretty friendly relationship.”

Thus it seemed natural when, after more than 30 years in the trade, Katzenberg and Prescott decided they had tired of it and that their quasi-competitors down the street might be interested.

“Pretty soon after another potential buyer fell through we saw Rob and said, ‘You wanna buy a bookstore?’” Linda recalls. “He said, ‘Hmmm, maybe we’ll think about it.’”

By 2006 it was a done deal. Rivendell stayed open under Kasow’s management for nearly another decade while Benedict took the reins at Bear Pond. This period included August of 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene deluged the city with flood waters so deep that people were paddling canoes and kayaks downtown; so while other merchants struggled to salvage their wares and buildings, Benedict and Kasow were doubly beset.

Around 2015 they concluded that life would be easier if they merged the stores under one roof, and the Bear Pond location won out. Kasow brought the used-book trade with him. “Our customers really appreciate having that here,” says Benedict.

Another important feature is the relationships they have forged with many of Vermont’s published authors, the benefits of which go both ways.

“We’ll do authors’ events here — a book signing, or a reading. A popular thing now is when somebody has a new book coming out they’ll tell their fans on their email lists, ‘If you want a signed copy, order it from Bear Pond Books.’ Then they’ll come in and sign the copies, and maybe inscribe them, and we send them out to readers all over the country.”

A Montpelier-area writer who has participated in events like these is Kekla Magoon, who has received numerous awards for her fiction and non-fiction works for young readers (among them, the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, three Coretta Scott King Honors, and an NAACP Image Award; Magoon has also been a finalist for the National Book Award). 

“It’s great for the store and the authors to have that close relationship,” she says, adding, “The store really offers something for everyone. I’m hoping they’ll recover quickly after the flood damage. Montpelier needs the bright spot that is Bear Pond Books now more than ever.”

* * *

Alas, there will be no 50th anniversary celebration, at least not on the timetable the store announced enthusiastically on its website prior to the flood: “[W]e’ll be celebrating all summer long, culminating in a big in-store party on August 5th.” Yet as Saturday, August 5, neared, the site read instead, “We are CLOSED until further notice due to flooding (but we will be back).” 

The website continues to take online orders, while also soliciting donations to help the store get back to normal.

For there will be a normal someday. Whether the new normal will be like the old one is hard to say, but this is Montpelier. This is Vermont. So there is virtual certainty that the normal we are moving toward will have bookstores in it, and in this community that’s very likely to be Bear Pond Books.

Tom Slayton, a Montpelier resident and former editor of Vermont Life magazine, frequented the original Bear Pond, and continued his patronage through five decades, cherishing both the evolution and the continuity.

“I may be prejudiced,” he says, “but I think it’s the best bookstore in Vermont. Under both former owners Michael Katzenberg and Linda Prescott and current owners Rob Kasow and Claire Benedict, Bear Pond has actively cultivated the intellectual life of the community by sponsoring readings, signings, and other events promoting local books and authors. The store has been a major contributor to cultural life in central Vermont.

“And then,” he adds, “there’s the simple pleasure of browsing there, running into friends and local writers, or just finding a good book.”

Amen to that.