The History of The Toadstool Bookshops
By Elizabeth Yates McGreal
Special to The Transcript
The following history was originally published in The Peterborough Transcript (now the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) in May of 1993, in honor of our 20th anniversary. Profound thanks go to Elizabeth Yates McGreal (author of the Newbury Award winning Amos Fortune, Free Man) for writing this beautiful and thought-provoking humble history of our proud Toadstool.
From the Heights in Concord I look back to Peterborough as The Toadstool looks back on its first 20 years—how it happened, the way it grew, and what is ahead.
It was 1972, Mary Williams and the family were sitting by the fire in the old farmhouse on Middle Hancock Road. They were talking of what was ahead, what they might do in that unexplored country of the future. Their conversation ranged from books, to horses, to working with the land, to teaching, to business, but always it came back to books. Books were all around them, always had been. Every room in the house had its shelves, every birthday or gift-giving time meant a book.
Their tastes were different as they grew up so the books were varied; and thought their father, Sydney Williams, had died four years previously, he was very much with them, for he had given all his children a love of reading and a great respect for books and what they had to offer. Mary left the group by the fire and went to the barn to see to the horses, but the talk continued. Frank, young Sydney, Stuart, George, Jenny, Willard, and a young cousin, Sandy Greene, were sharing ideas, and out of the welter came a reality: “We could have a bookstore.”
"The Toadstool. It was Earthy and it was magical"
Willard, telling me of that night when the idea germinated, said, “My older brother, Frank, who at 30 was a Wall Street wizard, had seen a bookstore in Vermont advertised for sale. We had been lamenting the lack of a good bookstore in Peterborough and he, inquisitive as always, suggested that we find out about it. So Jenny and I went to visit the store and realized the impracticality of buying and moving it to Peterborough. But enthusiasm had been developed in the family and it led us on.”
“And you had a name ready for the store?”
“Yes, something we conjured up, The Toadstool. It was earthy and it was magical, evoking the image in our minds now depicted in our logo of the elf sitting under the protection of a toadstool and reading a book.”
Katharine Gibson, illustrated by Isobel Read,
published by the Albert Whitman Company in 1950.
Soon space was rented in the Centertown building close to the river and across from the library. It was small, but there would be room for people to move around as they looked for books, to sit down and browse or visit with each other. A supply of books was purchases, a real medley but all in keeping with the standard agreed upon: “enchanting selections of wonderful books.”
“We started from scratch,” Willard said, “in the freedom to do, the independence to be, and we had no vision of failure. We would just do it, and we did. It was a family affair and would ever be. We had all shared in the planning and in the work, but with some there obligations to fulfill, and with others interest that took them away from Peterborough, so the management fell to Jenny and Me. In these beginning days, there were long hours and no pay, just excitement,” he added. “In late May 1972 The Toadstool Bookshop opened. Soon we were ordering new books, and felt a growing satisfaction as the books we took chances on found buyers who seemed delighted to have them. I graduated from Peterborough High School and had one semester of college and planned to return, but the work of the store was too compelling. I have a feeling that what you do becomes your education.”
With matching enthusiasm, the town was responding, glad to have a need in their midst so capably filled. Parents came seeking books for their children; students came seeking supplemental reading for school and college; adherents to the best-seller lists came wanting to keep up with what was being read. Many came wanting suggestions for a good book to read, and there were always those who knew exactly what they wanted and went to the shelf to find it.
"And so the more we sold, the more we learned,
and of course the more we learned the more we were able to sell."
“Sometimes,” Willard added to me, “a person would say ‘It sounds like’ or ‘It’s something like,’ and with that as a clue we loved trying to guess the title and find the book. In those early days,” he said, “we were learning and we still are from the people coming back to the store about new books, about great books we’ve missed, about subjects we’d never heard of, what’s good, what’s poorly written. ‘Get this,’ someone would say and ‘You might try this.’ When we ordered some special book we generally ordered more than one for the word might spread and we wanted to be ready. And so the more we sold the more we learned, and of course the more we learned the more we were able to sell. Anyone coming in to the store, no matter what the request, was first, last and always a person to be served and heeded."
“You were doing well, even more than well,” I observed.
“Yes, but we felt it was largely due to the terrific and enthusiastic response of the people in the Monadnock region. This is truly an area where people relish the book has entertainment, a source of information, and an art form. We are proud of what The Toadstool has done, but Peterborough should pride itself: the people have made it happen.”
The Toadstool did all it could to accommodate itself to success. The basement was no longer used for storage but with shelves and lighting had become part of the shop. The east wall was pushed out to give eight feet more space with a window seat that soon was not for sitting, but for books and the weekly supply of the New York Times Book Review, there for the taking. “We kept squeezing in another bookshelf here, another there,” Willard said, “piling on ‘til we hit the ceiling, and still we needed more room. I think we became masters of space utilization.” The “we” now included Holly. Willard had met her in the barn where she was helping his mother with the horses, but Holly soon discovered an equal interest in books. It was not long before hearts linked with hands in a sure relationship.
“And as the store became financially more stable,” Willard added, “Holly was able, to my delight, to leave her job and join us, bringing new energy, another perspective, and renewed commitment to the work. We were still all sharing responsibilities until 1984 when Jenny left us to join the horse world full-time and take care of her two sons. Since them, Holly and I toghether have been running the store.”
“But she took time to have your two little boys?” I asked.
“Yes, oh yes, Tyler and then Blake spent their first years in a basket under the counter, absorbing books as I once had.” His smile was a blend of affection and admiration. “Truly, Holly’s contribution to the store has been phenomenal over the years. She has been the driving force for perfection in service and the upkeeping of the stock. Holly’s knowledge of books goes far beyond mine, and she has the rare ability of being able to read a book quickly and sum it up to a questioning person.”
Even though different members of the family helped in various ways, it was the opening of the store in the Colony Mill at Keene in 1983, and another store at the Lorden Plaza in Milford in 1989, that made it necessary to go outside the family for help. There were many eager for employment in the world of books, but Willard and Holly felt that qualification beyond a feeling for books had to be met. An “Application for Employment” was worked out. The front page with the familiar elf sitting in the top tight corner had fairly usual questions about personal history, education, references; then the questions became more searching: why do you want to work in a bookstore? How many books do you read each month and in what subject areas do you read most heavily? What magazines, book reviews, newspaper do you read regularly?
The last page came to be known as The Infamous Toadstool Book Trivia Quiz. More than 100 titles, ranging from the Odyssey to Ulysses to Peter Rabbit to Principles of Population were to be identified.“Knowledge of books was important,” Willard explained, “and the quiz gave us an idea of an applicant’s areas of strength; fully as important was enthusiasm for books and book selling.”
Even with two other stores and extra help, The Toadstool was outgrowing itself. People of all ages, shapes, sizes and colors were crowding each other among the boxes of incoming books, the popular table of markdowns, the cards and calendars and small special books. By 1991, it was clear that a move would have to be made. The space in Centertown had served well, but more space was needed. It was close by in Depot Square, still in the heart of the town. A building colonial in feeling and with good parking had stood tenantless for two years. It had a varied history—built to be an A&P, it later became home of Yankee Magazine; after several years it went on the market again. There were other consideration and people wondered what would become of it.
"For three days, willing hands formed a book brigade
to move books from basement to main floor to waiting vans"
Then one day, in the late fall of 1991, the Transcript informed the town in a front page headline that the empty building had been leased by The Toadstool Bookshop. Admiration was mixed with amazement and consternation. “In a recession year?” “With reading losing to viewing and listening?” The negatives fell on unhearing ears. The Williams family believed in books as a cornerstone of civilization, no matter what the state of the world might be, and they believed in their community. “Could there be another region in the country capable of supporting what I consider, immodestly, three comprehensive literary bookstores?” Willard asked.
Renovations began and the familiar weekly ad in the Transcript that had been drawing attention to a few of the new books and reviewing them briefly now kept people informed of the progress being made. Shortly before the promised day of opening, the ad carried an invitation that anyone with willing hands would be welcome in the moving. For three days, willing hands formed a book brigade to move books from basement to main floor to waiting vans, then from vans to waiting shelves. Thirty thousand-plus books were shifted from old home to new.
Three days later, on March 4, The Toadstool opened, not only with books but with space to move around in. A week later, the willing hands received book tokens accompanied by hand-written notes… “with the help of volunteers we accomplished far more beyond what we had imagined.” A not-so-small miracle in a small town had happened. From one of the shelves, Willa Cather’s whisper might have been heard; “Where there is a great love there are always miracles.”
“And the next 20 years?” Willard answers his own question: “I have faith that the generation that has grown up during the years of our store will continue to value the book for the same reasons and will introduce their children to the world of books. In fact, I see it happening already. People I remember coming in as kids with their parents now bring their own kids in for Goodnight Moon and Pat the Bunny and all that comes after. I think Peterborough will support a bookstore for a long time to come, but Holly and I want to know what you think the future will bring for readers, for writers, for literature, for the art of reading?”
The book speaks to the mind in a manner that elicits response.
As the speed and pressure of life increase, so will the
need for books as solace, delight, and inspiration"
What a question to ask me, for books have been my life as long as I can remember, reading, then writing, and all along the years enjoying. Viewing and listening that fill too many hours for too many people are in their way temporary. They entertain and inform but their reach is limited. The book speaks to the mind in a manner that elicits response. As the speed and pressures of life increase, so will the need for books as solace, delight, and inspiration.
There is a Chinese riddle that asks “Who is the more fortunate—the man who has 13 daughters or the man who has a library?” One answer is the man with the daughters because he knows he has enough; the little elf reading under his toadstool would say the man with library because he knows there can never be enough books.