Barrett's Bookstore: Come for the books, stay for the people

The rain was steadily falling Monday morning, providing Darien with a short break from the frigid temperatures over the weekend and before the next cold snap set in for the rest of the week.

Inside Barrett Bookstore, 314 Heights Road, there was a sense of calm. The large brown leather sofa, flanked by a large globe and table with brass lamps along the front window, was unoccupied but looked inviting. The walls, as they should be in a bookstore, are covered in thousands of titles. One of the first shelves in the store features books being read in local clubs for 10 percent off the sale price.

Sheila Daley, the store's owner, sat at the half-circle desk in the bookstore working on a computer while Robin Harvey stocked the shelves with new books.

Common opinion holds that the Internet and e-reading devices like the Amazon Kindle soon will push stores like Daley's into extinction. Failures of once-ubiquitous book chains -- like the 2011 bankruptcy of Borders -- seem to fortify that narrative. And there have been some losses at the local level, like the closings of Rainy Faye in Bridgeport and Dinosaur's Paw in Fairfield.

Daley said she has definitely felt a difference in the bookstore as e-books and shopping through Amazon have gained popularity.

"It's tough to compete with Amazon," Daley said. "You can't compete with Amazon."

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But even with a sluggish economy and the rise of digital reading, many independent bookstores, like Daley's shop and Elm Street Books in New Canaan, are thriving as go-to places for area bookworms.

Sales at independent bookstores grew 8 percent in 2012, according to several news accounts. From January to September 2013, at least 65 bookstores joined the American Booksellers Association, bringing the total to 1,632. That number has gone up every year since 2009, according to the association report.

Barrett Bookstore frequently teams with nonprofits, such as the Community Fund of Darien, for events. The store and the organization will partner in February to bring Kelly Corrigan, author of "Glitter and Glue," for a benefit luncheon at the Country Club of Darien.

Daley, who has owned Barrett's since 1997, has found ways to make her store stand out from the big-box competition, like Barnes and Noble.

"We sell ourselves on the idea of customer service," Daley said. "The staff are all readers and can recommend books based on a particular taste."

The store's success feeds off itself.

"Customers will tell us about books that they love," Daley said in front of a massive oak fireplace, which was once in her great-grandfather's library in a New York brownstone, that was installed in the back of the store. "There's a lot of conversation in this store."

Barrett Bookstore was once located in Stamford, where it opened in 1939. The store faced its first hurdle in the 1970s when the Stamford Town Center was built, diverting a majority of the foot traffic from its location on Summer Street, according to the store's website.

David Rose -- from whom Daley and her husband bought the store -- moved it to High Ridge Road in Stamford, but again met challenges when a Borders store moved in next door. By that time, Rose already had expanded with a second store in Darien in the Goodwives Shopping Center. The store would relocate to the Noroton Heights location after rent went up.

The Stamford store was closed after the Borders opened and the Darien store became the only Barrett.

In 1997, Daley's husband had retired from his job on Wall Street in New York and she was at home when the opportunity to purchase the bookstore arose.

Daley said she always had dreamed of owning her own bookstore since her mother was an avid reader and was putting books in Daley's hands since she was 15, so the couple bought the store. Daley said she remembers as a child going into Barrett's Bookstore with her mother when it was in Stamford.

Neil Silberblatt, the founder of Voices of Poetry in New Milford, said the community connection is an important characteristic of local stores.

"Independent bookstores are the lifeblood of small communities, much as libraries," he said. "They offer everyone the opportunity to be part of the wonderful world of words."

The need for energy does take its toll on some bookstore owners. Janet Olsen Ryan and her husband, Sean, bought the building at 50 Bank St. in New Milford in 2007, and she runs the Bank Street Book Nook there.

But now the couple has sold the building and is looking for a buyer for the business.

"It's been a lot of fun," Janet Ryan said in an interview Saturday. "And I've liked being part of New Milford's downtown. But it's been a seven-day-a-week responsibility, and I never really intended to do retail."

Daley loves being in her store and is there every day from noon to 6 p.m.

"I love being with the people and it goes beyond that," Daley said. "You end up developing a relationship with people, not only talking about what they like to read but you also get to know their families and what their families like to read. It's just a very pleasant atmosphere."; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews

Staff writer Susan Tuz contributed to this article.