Crowned by its iconic gold dome and eagle, the New Hampshire State House sits just a short stroll from Concord’s Main Street, which caters to politicians, visitors, and locals alike with its array of locally owned eateries and retailers.
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Home to New Hampshire’s three largest cities — Concord, Manchester, and Nashua — the Merrimack Valley Region offers a little bit of everything for visitors. Defined by its namesake river, the second-longest in New England, the region packs in fine restaurants, first-class art and history museums, a graceful state capitol that is one of the oldest and most accessible in the country, and the kinds of retail options that shoppers of every stripe can appreciate.
For generations, bibliophiles have been making a beeline to Gibson’s Bookstore in downtown Concord. Opened in 1898, it is both the oldest independent bookstore in the state and the oldest continuously operating retailer in the Concord area.
“We’ve never thought of ourselves as just a store,” says Michael Herrmann, who’s owned the business since 1994. “Even before Covid, we wanted to function as a ‘third place’ where people could go to if they weren’t going to work or back home, somewhere people could just unplug, relax, and explore and entertain themselves a little.”
Like many locally owned retail businesses, Gibson’s saw a precipitous drop in sales when Covid hit. But along with all the uncertainty that the pandemic introduced, Herrmann says, it also ignited a strong sense of community. Online and phone orders “exploded” after he was forced to temporarily close the store to the public last March.
“Right away we started receiving orders — not just from customers in the Concord area but from around the country. People really went out of their way to support local bookstores,” says Herrmann, who immediately offered curbside delivery to his local customers. “We had a strong social media presence, so that helped, and publishers did a lot too, by helping to raise the profile of shops like ours with signed books and author events.”
As you might expect, the independent bookstore sector isn’t a cutthroat one. Fellow store owners rallied around one another, says Herrmann. “We were all talking to each other, giving one another tips on what was and wasn’t working,” he says.
Customers also helped get the word out, spreading the love on their social media channels, buying gift cards, and advocating for the importance of shopping local. “It was a real community effort,” he says.
When Herrmann did reopen his doors last summer, he was mindful of making sure the shopping experience felt safe. Masks were required, plexiglass dividers and individual air filters were placed at the checkout counters, and hand sanitizer was stationed throughout the shop.
The bookstore’s location also helped. Having moved into the former Borders space on South Main Street in 2013, Gibson’s benefited from being in a modern building that’s LEED-certified and equipped with an up-to-date HVAC system that keeps fresh air circulating constantly. “Being in this space and having a landlord who was so proactive was a real benefit,” says Herrmann.
In the past few months, Herrmann says, business has rebounded significantly: December, for example, was on par with previous holiday sales periods. And while the in-person author events that Gibson’s is known for have been shelved, the bookstore has kept its calendar filled. Since last March it’s hosted or been a part of more than 100 book-related virtual events, including those with several A-list authors.
“I was online with John Grisham twice, interviewing him,” says Herrmann. “I never would have had that chance before, so things like that have really been good for us. Having removed the geographical barriers, we’re getting authors from all over the world. It’s changed things for bookstores like us, and I hope it continues after the pandemic is over.”
Hermann also sees other important changes lasting even after a sense of normalcy has returned. “This whole period has been a powerful argument for shopping local,” he says. “Everybody knows we’re going to come out on the other side of this, so it’s a matter of what kind of world we want to come into. Supporting local businesses — stores, restaurants, and theaters — means supporting local community. That’s been so important.”
Thinking of planning a visit to the Merrimack Valley Region? Here is a sampling of locally owned businesses that are open and ready to welcome you! Find links to travel resources at visitnh.gov/seasonal-trips/getting-here.Granite State Candy Shoppe, Concord and Manchester
Gondwana & Divine Clothing Co., Concord
BonaFide Green Goods, Concord
The Comic Store, Nashua
Chalifour’s Flowers, Manchester
Angela’s Pasta and Cheese Shop, Manchester