Suzanna Hermans

Co-owner, Oblong Books

Where did the name “Oblong” come from?
It’s a long-lost regional name. Historically, New York and Connecticut were trying to figure out where the border between the two states was going to be. They each did a survey, and the surveys differed by one mile. It was a rectangular strip of land they called “The Oblong.” They had a disagreement about it, but New York ended up getting this land and Connecticut got the piece that sticks out by Greenwich. It’s one of those historical facts that my dad, who started the store, stumbled upon and thought, “That would be an interesting name for a bookstore.” Our Millerton store is on that “oblong” territory.

Tell us about the history of the business since opening in Millerton in 1975 and expanding to Rhinebeck in 2001.
My dad and a business partner decided to open the business after college when they were in their 20s. They took a pickup truck down to New York City to a book wholesaler, filled it up with books and brought it back and started a tiny book and record shop in Millerton. Over the years, we moved that store twice — once across the street and then back to this side of the street into the much bigger building where we are now. It’s a two-story building that had previously been an old department store. In the mid-’90s we bought a second building in Millerton and connected the two. That building is our children’s book and toy store, Oblong Junior.

In 2001 we had an opportunity to open a second location in Rhinebeck. A young woman was turning a property her family owned that had been a car service station into retail shops called Montgomery Row. She got in touch with us and asked if we’d be interested in putting a bookstore in there. Thank goodness my dad said yes, because it has turned out very well. Rhinebeck has become an even bigger destination in the last 20 years.

What are some lessons you learned from your dad?
He’s a chill person. It’s very hard to ruffle his feathers. He’s extremely thoughtful. He has very good instincts, and I think I absorbed a lot of that from him. Nothing is an emergency. We’re booksellers — we’re here to connect people with books and work with our community. We’re not doctors or brain surgeons. Chances are, if there’s a problem, we can wait and deal with it tomorrow. It’s not a life-or-death situation. He’s been a very calm and steady leader of our shop, and I hope I take that with me. He will retire one day, but we get along so well and he’s so easy to work with. He doesn’t nitpick or overanalyze the work I’m doing, and vice versa. He does a lot of our bookkeeping, which I really appreciate. Eventually, I’ll probably have to do that. He orders the greeting cards for our store. He has his hands in the stuff he still enjoys doing, which is fine with me. I’m happy to have him.

How has the industry changed for independent bookstores over the years?
You could write a whole book about that! When my dad first opened the store in the ’70s, independent retail was king. It was everything. It was before malls. We were really protected where we were in Millerton, because there’s no city near Millerton. There are no major chain stores. To this day, if you want to go to a Target, it’s still at least a 40-minute drive. In the ’90s we saw the rise of the chains — Barnes & Noble, Borders, Walden Books were opening up these massive stores all across the country, which were very glamorous. They drove a ton of small shops out of business. We were really protected because there weren’t any near us. We were still the only show in town, which was great.

And of course in the 2000s, Amazon came, and the internet. That is still our number-one competitor. Fortunately, we were able to live through that tough time. I think people realized that they do want a physical space to shop for books. The physical experience of shopping for books in a bookstore is just fundamentally different than shopping on a website.

The next was e-books about 10 years ago. Everybody was really freaked out across the industry that e-reading was going to kill print book sales. And what we found was that a certain number of people converted to reading completely digitally, but then that number plateaued, and it remained a relatively low percentage of book sales. It wasn’t the death knell that everyone was worried it was going to be. That was a relief.

So that’s where we are now. We’ve really seen an incredible resurgence in the past five to 10 years of new independent bookstores opening all over the country. Even here in the Hudson Valley, we’ve had some new stores open, which has been such a wonderful thing. Especially with COVID, we were all very nervous about what that would mean for our business, but we actually found more people coming to us in search of community and connection. The resurgence of the “shop local” idea has really been strong these last two years. I’m cautiously optimistic for the future. We’ve been doing this a long time and we run a pretty tight ship, which helps.

Do you sell any music or records?
Yes, we do! We actually used to be Oblong Books & Music, but we took that off our name a couple years ago. We felt like it was time. We were going to get a new logo anyway, so we thought “Okay, let’s do it.” We do still sell physical CDs and used vinyl. That’s my dad’s passion project. He’s the music guy, and he loves that. Because we’re kind of the only place you can find it between New York City and Albany, people do come from quite far away to shop our inventory.

Tell us about how you give back to the community. How do you work with schools and libraries?
Every single day we’re doing something, some kind of partnership. We work with a lot of local libraries. We provide them with books. We partner with them to host author events. If a book comes to us damaged by a publisher, we’re able to donate those to the library. We’re able to pass a lot of free books on to them.

Schools too. I’m in the middle of a lot of school stuff now. Schools order from us. We’re also able to offer services like curation of school libraries and classroom libraries. I do presentations to local school teachers. We’ve brought authors to schools.

We do a lot with our local nonprofits as well. We’ll cosponsor an event that benefits them, and we donate a lot of gift cards to auctions and raffles and that sort of thing. I’m down to partner with anyone for anything. It’s critical to what we do.

Do you host events?
Right now we do about 100 events per year. That includes events held in store and events at off site venues, as well as private parties, farmers market book signings, all kinds of stuff. The craziest part is that before COVID, we were up to 200 events per year. That was too many! I’m honestly much happier at 100, even though we wish we could say yes to everything.

What are some recent releases you highly recommend? Or favorite authors?
I thought I’d recommend two New York-based books by New York authors. The first one is Big Swiss by Jen Beagin, which is set in Hudson, New York. It’s fantastic. It’s about a woman who is working as a transcriptionist for a sex therapist. She listens to the audio recordings and transcribes them, and she starts to become absolutely enamored with this woman through listening to the sessions with this therapist. It’s hilarious, it’s sexy, it’s funny, it’s smart and it also a perfectly describes Hudson and the Hudson Valley and the vibes we’re all experiencing with gentrification.

The other one I want to mention is called The Puzzle Master by Danielle Trussoni. The book is set in the Hudson Valley. It’s a DaVinci Code-esque thriller. It’s about a man who is a puzzle genius. He’s had a traumatic brain injury that has caused him to be able to think in puzzles and maps. He’s absolutely brilliant. He gets summoned to a women’s prison in upstate New York to talk to this inmate who hasn’t said a word since her incarceration a year prior. All of the sudden she writes down his name on a piece of paper and gives it to the warden. We don’t know why or how they’re connected. He has no idea who she is, but it’s about uncovering the mystery of why she’s in prison, what happened and getting sucked into an absolute page-turner thriller.

There are endless books out there. How do you decide which ones to offer? Do you focus on certain genres or categories?
We are a true general bookstore; we sell a little bit of everything. We also sell a lot of kid’s books. We are very passionate about raising the next generation of readers. I am the buyer for the store, and I look at every single book coming out and decide whether or not to stock it. It’s a massive amount of my workload to do that, but technology is such that it’s beautifully easy for me.

We have a really amazing group of customers who buy all kinds of cool stuff, so I try to have what they expect us to have but also a lot of cool stuff that makes them think, “Oh, what’s this?”

We have staff picks. We have about 26 people on staff between the two stores, so we have hundreds and hundreds of staff picks.

Do most of your customers come in knowing what they want, or are they open to suggestions?
It’s a mix, and that’s the magic of the in-person shopping experience because you’re probably going to discover something new even if you came in for something specific. Some people just want to spend time browsing. Especially these days, when we’re all so busy and tied to our screens all the time, the bookstore has become a place for self-care. Take time for yourself and walk around and spend some time looking at books without anyone bugging you. We’ll happily help you if you want help, but if you don’t, we’re happy to leave you alone.

Do book bans affect your business?
One school near us had banned the book Gender Queer: A Memoir. We used that moment to do some advocacy and speak to our customers. We have a twice-weekly newsletter, and in there from time to time we talk about book bans.

We celebrate Banned Books Week every year. It’s in October. We do a display. A decade ago, people were like, “Book bans? That still happens?” But now it really is happening. It’s in the news. It’s so important that young people have access to diverse thoughts and see themselves represented in books.

We definitely advocate during school board voting. That’s the kind of work we’re doing, and we’re also supporting other bookseller friends around the county who are dealing with it in a more intense way.

What advice do you have for parents to help raise avid readers in the digital age?
My number-one piece of advice is to read and let your child see you reading. Seeing a parent read models to the child that this is something we do. This is a part of our life. This is something we do for fun. This is something that educates us. And also to read with your kids. Find a book that you can read together before bed. Make reading a part of every day in your house. I think that’s critical.

When do you find time to read for fun?
I’ve gotten a little bit better over the last few years. I read all the time for work — I’m constantly reading. But I read at night before bed, and I listen to audiobooks in the car. For me, it’s the difference between reading new books that are coming out this year or next year, or an advanced copy — or letting myself read some older books. I’ve been letting myself read some backlist books, books that were published over a year ago. Because they’re great books too, and I want to read them even though they might not need my help to sell.

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