Ebenezer’s cozy comfort

Though it only occupies a small stamp of land on the corner of Pearl St. and Main, Ebenezer Books is hard to miss. There is something proud about this brick building, from its squat structure to its single sign, where gilded letters and a charming portrait of a cock-eared dog greet every resident and visitor of downtown Johnson. A tour of the books on display in the store’s windows will reveal a smattering of eclecticism and quality, a small preview of what awaits inside.

Beyond the door, there is no doubt that Ebenezer Books exudes a cozy sort of comfort. The store resembles more of a large personal library than a small shop. Well-stocked bookshelves run along the perimeter of each room, and the brick walls are enthusiastically decorated with local artwork showcasing a myriad of animals and landscapes. An old walk-in vault from the building’s banking past stands open, proudly displaying its inner gears and rods to any spectator. The occasional chair, such as the inviting one tucked away in a corner of the children’s section, only complements the feeling of a welcoming and relaxed space.

To enter Ebenezer is to be immediately welcomed by whoever is manning the counter. More often than not that person is JJ Indelicale, the store’s owner and the type of person who will fix you coffee when you’re cold or offer you a lift even if the ride is a little out of her way. She’s run Ebenezer Books since August of 2008, one month before the great economic recession shook that year. “I’ve had a steep learning curve since the beginning,” she said, “but I’ve always been here for the books. I’m a bookstore customer anywhere I go. They’re my center. I always have to know where the bookstore is.”

Named after Ezer, Indelicale’s dog who also served as a willing model for the store’s logo, Ebenezer Books clearly lives up to precedent Indelicale set for it: “Ebenezer translates from the original Hebrew as ‘place of refuge.’ Books are that for me,” she said, “and I hope a bookstore can be that for others.”

However, as with any refuge, there must be something dangerous stalking about in the periphery, something which makes a refuge necessary. “I’d only lived here for a year at that point,” Indelicale said of her purchase, “but back then Amazon was building power. Initially, I didn’t understand all the ramifications of their business practices, but a lot more has come out since I’ve had this store.”

By now, entire books have been written on Amazon.com’s business model of expansion and monopolization, a model which has served to drive the price of retail books ever higher. Amazon has the resources to purchase huge quantities of books, and their economic weight can easily apply pressure to a variety of publishers. By using certain books as loss-leaders, whereby a book is sold below its market price in order to stimulate sales of more profitable products, certain books are effectively devalued.

Conversely, Ebenezer must seek out and build independent credit relationships with each individual publisher, with the assistance of a wholesaler as a middle man. These relationships take time, and Indelicale learned by trial and error which publishers will ship something to you within a couple of days and which ones have very few people manning the phones.

Many of these publishers, of course, are facing hard times as well. University presses in particular are struggling economically, which in turn makes Indelicale’s job that much harder. “There are hundreds of small presses, and some are doing really vital work, work we need to have in here,” she said, “but I won’t be able to order certain titles wholesale because I would have to pay as much for it as a retail customer, and that’s really damaging.”

When you add in the cold convenience of a computer screen, it is hard to see how any independent bookstore can compete. There are around 25 independent bookstores scattered throughout Vermont, from Phoenix Books in Burlington to Star Cat Books in Bradford, and each must deal with the reality of this corporate giant. It’s a battle on the scale of David vs. Goliath, only nowadays David is nursing a broken arm.

“It really is a struggle,” Indelicale said. “I’m thankful for the support we do have. There’s a solid core of local people who really care about books, but I don’t know if that support is big enough.”

“It’s hard to be hopeful in this political moment,” Indelicale continued. “Our future has never been certain. In terms of this store, what can I say? I’ve always been here for the books, and we’ll try to hang in there.”

Indelicale’s rich passion for books is evident in the high quality of her selections. Books of all shades and stripes populate her shelves, and she aims for a high quality of production and sense of diversity in her stock. Her position as a bookseller allows Indelicale to promote work which may otherwise be lost in more mainstream markets. Nonfiction in particular has a very narrow market for hardcover sales. “It always makes me happy to sell a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists,” she said, “and it’s a little bit of a surprise how many copies we’ve sold.”

Far from anything one may find in the online world, Ebenezer also offers a wide range of zines, collections of self-published work common among bookstores of the city, but not so much in rural areas. Indelicale discovered zines while living in San Francisco, and loves whenever anyone asks about these little books.

Her passion is further informed by the neighboring Vermont Studio Center, a place where artists from across the country come to escape the world and focus solely on their work. According to Jody Gladding, the manager of the writing program at VSC, Ebenezer is “an invaluable resource for our community. [The store] is great about stocking titles by all our visiting writers, which means that, right down the street from their studios, our residents can find the work of the writers they hear read, give craft talks, and have conferences with.”

Ebenezer Books is also very present at every author reading, offering signed copies of practically any title. “Ebenezer gets in the writer’s newest titles, and [the store] is wonderful about adapting to our last minute schedule changes,” Gladding said.

Through the VSC, Indelicale meets many authors she wouldn’t have otherwise known, and in doing so adds to her already strong collections of contemporary poetry and prose, both literary fiction and non-fiction. Ebenezer holds such a close relationship to the VSC that Indelicale essentially witnessed the completion of one author’s short story collection, Josh Rolnick’s Pulp and Paper, which he worked on during his stay at the VSC.

“I wish more people in the community knew to go to the readings twice a month,” she said. “It’s great to have writers and artists coming through all the time who are actively engaged in the writing community.”

Those who love Ebenezer often share a similar passion. “There’s no better way to spend an afternoon that browsing in a serious independent bookstore. Ebenezer’s poetry section is the best in the state, hands down. It’s a very special place,” Gladding said.

Stores like Ebenezer Books will continue to struggle, but it is equally obvious they will also continue to inspire. One of Indelicle’s favorite compliments came from a boy plopped in the middle of her children’s section. “This little guy was sitting on the floor,” she said, “and I had to excuse myself to get by him. He asked me if I worked here, and when I said yes he gave this blissful sigh and said, ‘lucky.’ It’s thrilling to see kids come in and be excited about books.”