MANCHESTER — A Northshire institution will remain in local hands.
Manchester’s iconic Northshire Bookstore, widely heralded as one of the best independent bookstores anywhere, and its sister store in Saratoga Springs, New York, have been sold by the Morrow family to Clark and Lu French of Manchester.
The sale was announced in a press release early Friday morning consisting of letters to the community by Chris Morrow, who currently runs the store; his parents Edward and Barbara Morrow, the founders of the original Northshire Bookstore in 1976, and the new owners.
“It is with excitement, confidence and sadness that I announce that the Northshire Bookstores are passing out of Morrow ownership,” Chris Morrow wrote in the release.
He said the process of selling the two bookstores began before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic “reinforced that the time was right for me to move onto other things.”
The Frenches have been in Manchester for 22 years and active in the community. They recently remodeled the former Mark Skinner Library building, which now houses the Silver Fork Restaurant, which is owned by Clark French’s brother and sister-in-law Mark and Melody French.
They are also former owners of the Reluctant Panther, Village Picture Show, and they have served as board members of the Manchester Community Library, Taconic Music, and Burr and Burton Academy among others.
The sale was official Thursday and as of 9 a.m. Clark and Lu French were the owners of The Northshire Bookstore.
“My business up until yesterday was in real estate,” Clark French said at 5 p.m. Friday. “At 9 a.m. I was on the floor [of the bookstore] until 10 minutes ago. This is not a passive investment for us. I’m customer forward. I will be spending a great deal of time on the sales floor here and in Saratoga.”
The Northshire Bookstore was founded in 1976 across the street from its current location in 1,000 square feet of space next to what is now Berkshire Bank. Soon it was expanded downstairs to add floor space before the Morrows bought the Colburn House in its current location in 1985.
The former inn and restaurant went through a 1 1/2 year renovation before the bookstore crossed the street. By the late 1990s the bookstore needed more room and in 2003 it expanded into its current 10,000 square feet space.
John Grisham once called The Northshire, “A real bookstore,” during an appearance in 2017. And he told Chris Morrow that local readers, “love this store and they adore your family and this bookstore you all built here and are very, very devoted to it. And I see why.”
Clark and Lu French were two of those customers, who in the release said the Northshire is “more than a bookstore to us. It’s a vibrant gathering and shopping venue where memories are made and discovery is encouraged. Supporting and nurturing this enriching experience is our highest priority. “
And they know the importance of the Northshire to the area.
“Since 1976 the Northshire Bookstore has been one of our community’s most important cultural and business institutions,” they said in the release. “It has fostered a love of reading, knowledge and discourse while offering the areas’ finest retail shopping experiences, both in Manchester and in Saratoga Springs.”
Clark French spoke passionately about his love of books as he made his case that this wasn’t just a job. He said spending time with other book lovers, authors and agents created a great environment to feed that passion.
“For my entire life, books have been a real comfort for me,” Clark French said. “I’m a real avid reader. Most of what I have actually learned, I’ve learned from books. My world view is defined by books.”
He said he read 93 books last year and he’s not just an avid reader, but an avid collector.
“I have a genuine affinity for books,” French said. “Books have meaning for me.”
The new owners also hailed the store’s staff for its “decades of expertise in creating an unparalleled retail experience.”
He said there would be no staff changes or job cuts. In fact, he said they’re bulking up their staff for an expected busy summer season.
“These folks are the best in the business, not just the best in Manchester, they’re the best in the country at running an independent bookstore,” French said referencing the experienced staff. “It would be silly for us to come in and say we know better.”
But mostly, the Frenches praised the Morrows for creating a bookstore legacy they would strive to continue.
“The experience the Morrows have created is one of the finest in the country,” French said. “We are sincerely grateful to the Morrow family for trusting us with their life’s work and welcome the opportunity to continue their legacy for many years to come.”
Chris Morrow said that selling to the Frenches was the best possible option.
“When thinking about selling, my main worry was always finding someone ... who had the right sensibilities as well as the chops; someone who appreciated The Book, the art of bookselling and our amazing staff and who also had the background, energy, vision and resources to carry the bookstores into future decades,” Chris Morrow said. “Amazingly, my first conversation led to today’s announcement.”
Chris Morrow remembered the early days of the bookstore, when his parents started it in 1976 across the street from its current location.
“We lived in a dark apartment underneath the bookstore,” Morrow said. “I was 9. While the ladder leading to the trap door in the floor of the service desk area was very cool, I was not coaxed into bookselling full time until 1998. It was just for a couple of years to help my parents with an expansion. And here we are 23 years later.”
Chris Morrow, who has been a fixture in the Manchester store and the face of the bookstore, turned philosophical in his statement about the end of his family’s involvement.
“Perhaps it is fitting that I am at a loss for words, given how many words we have shepherded from soul to soul over the decades,” Morrow wrote. “What is bookselling without paradox, irony, humor, hope and fear, and a whole lotta hard work? The books that have lived in the stores are so varied and numerous, like a beach with each grain of sand a different color.”
It’s the people that he is thinking about now.
“As I sit here letting memories flow over me, it is the people I am most grateful for — the amazing colleagues who have worked at the bookstores, the inspirational authors who have convened with us in Manchester and Saratoga, the kindred souls at other bookstores and at publishing houses, and the generations of guests who have made all this possible for us,” Morrow said. “What a beautiful adventure!”
Ed and Barbara Morrow, in their “Founder’s Note” to the community, called the sale a “bittersweet watershed event for us” and they believe the Frenches are the perfect caretakers for what they’ve created.
“We feel confident that we are passing the store’s stewardship into good and competent hands,” Ed and Barbara Morrow said. “Clark and Lu have been longtime patrons and supporters of the Northshire. They are book-knowledgeable, community-oriented, long-time residents, and have proven business and leadership acumen.”
Praise for the Northshire, the Morrows and the Frenches came from all corners.
“The Northshire Bookstore has been a rock, an anchor in the Manchester downtown for decades under the leadership of the Morrow family,” said Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe. “The community and the Town wish Chris and his family the very best in their next chapter, pardon the pun. Of course, we are delighted to learn that the Northshire is staying in local hands with Clark and Lu French, who will undoubtedly continue its history of literary excellence.”
And, speaking of history, there aren’t many who can match local historical knowledge with Shawn Harrington of the Manchester Historical Society, who praised the fact the bookstore will remain independent and locally owned.
“This is truly good fortune and comfort that our jewel will remain a vital part of the community,” Harrington wrote on Facebook. “I look forward to the next chapter in Northshire Bookstore’s story.”
Chris Morrow remembered a letter he received last summer from a longtime customer.
“Over the last 45 years your bookstore has been both a salvation and inspiration for our family,” the letter said.
“We have tried our best to live up to the highest standards of independent bookselling and to serve the communities that have supported our mission. It has been an honor,” Chris Morrow said. “My last request is that you welcome Clark and Lu into the Northshire family and support them as they make the bookstores even better in the coming years.”