Once upon a time, The Jumping Frog bookstore, named after Mark Twain's first famous short story, offered 100,000 books in a 9,000-square-foot space.
Today, it's a bookstore more in spirit than practice. The owners, Bill and Deide McBride, make better money selling antique postcards, train schedules and movie posters on eBay than from the 6,000 titles in their shop, now located in much smaller digs on Arbor Street.
Even though Hartford has a celebrated literary history, thanks to Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Connecticut's capital city today has no general-interest bookstore. It hasn't for years, and isn't likely to get one soon.
"We have no bookstore," Bill McBride said. "There's not even a chain."
It's possible to find books for sale in Hartford, of course. There's the Hartford Seminary Bookstore on Sherman Street, for example, and Tru Books on upper Main, the Trinity College Bookstore at the school and Erotic Zone on West Service Road. Lots of gift shops sell some books.
But specialty bookstores serving the narrow interests of a specific segment of book buyers don't do much for the general-interest reader. The person looking to drift in from the street and get lost in a wonderland of books has nowhere to go, except out of town or online.
Without a general-interest bookstore, Hartford lacks a certain vitalizing commercial experience that helps create a sense of community and attracts people and other businesses.
"It's a matter of connection vs. alienation," said author Wally Lamb, who lives in Storrs and recently returned from a 22-city book tour that included at least four Connecticut bookstores, but none in Hartford. "... When you enter a good bookstore where the booksellers are also readers and get excited about the books — and know what your taste and interests might be — then you have a human connection."
Or, as Suzanne Staubach, manager of the general books division at the UConn Co-Op, put it, "A bookstore brings cultural life to a city."
Culture has commercial value. Not long ago, Northland Investment Corp., which owns the Hartford 21 apartment tower and is the city's biggest private property owner, asked Roxanne Coady of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison to consider opening a store downtown.
Coady said she was glad for the invitation, but didn't bite. RJ Julia, one of the state's best known independent bookstores, barely gets by as it is. "Most years, it loses money," she said. "Some years, it breaks even."
In Hartford, the forces working against bookstores, and downtown retail in general, are well documented. The city lacks sufficient round-the-clock, seven-day foot traffic to support a rich retail fauna, largely because too few people live in the central city (which Northland has worked hard to change).
"There's nothing gravitational about our downtown," said Bill McBride, 63, who remembers a different Hartford, one where he could find a variety of bookstores after stepping off the Silver Lane bus from Manchester, where he grew up.
Even in more populated and affluent towns and cities, keeping a bookstore afloat, especially an independent store, is a struggle, given price competition from national chains, which benefit from economies of scale, and the Internet, which offers the broadest selection. These days chains are in trouble, too: The Borders Group tried to sell itself last year, and its stock is in danger of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.
"The first bullet was the chains. The second bullet was Amazon. The third bullet was the decline in reading," Coady said of independent bookstores. "How many bullets can bookstores take?"
The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores nationwide, has about 1,600 members representing 1,900 store locations, down more than 60 percent from the early 1990s, when it had about 4,300 members with 4,700 stores. Urban bookstores commonly bear the additional burden of steeper rents than their suburban competitors.
"It's not unlike the story all over America," said Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, based in Arlington, Mass. "A lot of downtowns haven't — in some instances, for the past 10, 15 years — been able to support a general-interest bookstore."
Huntington's, Hartford's most celebrated bookstore, with a lineage dating from 1835 (the year of Twain's birth), closed in 1993, citing competition from chain stores and too little foot traffic downtown. Other booksellers have come and gone since, including Encore Books at CityPlace II.
Attracting a general-interest bookstore to Hartford is not unthinkable, Coady said. But it would require a major investment and probably a store that is equal parts cultural center and book retailer, "something like the 92nd Street Y with a bookstore," she said, referring to the 133-year-old New York City lecture hall, performance space and community organization. And it would need to draw customers from the suburbs. "It would have to be a lot of things to a lot of people," she said.
The Jumping Frog, named after Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," has long been more than a bookstore. Even in its heyday, the McBrides sold historical "ephemera," as they call it. But the books were the main thing, the artifacts a sideline. Now it's the other way around.
Still, the McBrides believe in general bookstores for the experience they offer. So they keep a small, eccentric, minimally sorted selection of books for sale, enabling others, Bill McBride said, to have "the fun of encountering the previously unencountered, there on the shelf."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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