Otter Creek Used Books looks and smells exactly like what one would expect of a secondhand bookstore in rural Vermont. Hidden behind the main highway that cuts through the town, the store had a sign that announced the weekday hours and a cheeky “Sundays by chance.” Next door, a deli played jovial jazz tunes, and customers at a nearby teahouse chatted out in the sun.
As soon as I stepped through the door frame, the jazz and the chatter faded away, absorbed by the yellowed, dog-eared books that insulated every wall. Walking through the narrow alleys between the shelves, it occurred to me that the biggest difference between commercial bookshops and used bookstores is that the former wants you to buy books, but the latter welcomes browsing and having visitors sitting down to read. The store seemed cluttered in a welcoming way.
Barbara Harding, the owner, was born in Hudson, New York, and moved to Weybridge, Vermont, in 1962. In the 60s, Weybridge had a significant farming community that did not look favorably on the city dwellers. As a former New Yorker, the nine-year-old Barbara was not well received in her classes.
“As soon as the teacher left the room, the kids collectively pushed me, without actually touching me, to the corner of the classroom,” Barbara said, laughing as she recounted her first day of school. However, now she identifies comfortably as a local.
“There is a distinct Vermont way of life, and I learned that from my first day of school,” she said. “Things are not as rushed. People are closer to each other.”
After completing her education, Barbara remained in Middlebury and pursued a successful career in tourism for a decade. She loved the industry but found the work stressful.
“I distinctly remember that day. I was in my office, like usual, and all of a sudden I just had to go for a walk and take my mind off of work. I distinctly remember slamming my chair into my office desk and leaving from the front door,” she said.
On that day, instead of following her usual path — a right turn that would take her to a residential neighborhood — Barbara took a left and went down a path she’s never gone before. The path led her to a used bookstore for sale.
“I asked for the price and immediately decided: This is it. This is what I am going to do,” she said. “I called my husband and told him we are buying a used bookshop. He said, ‘OK.’”
A year later, Barbara quit her day job and started running Otter Creek Used Books full time.
Although the purchase was spontaneous, Barbara has a long history of interest in reading and visiting second-hand bookshops. Wherever they went, Barbara and her husband would always seek out used bookstores.
“When you are my age you look back on life a lot,” said Barbara. “I often wonder what would happen if I took a right turn instead of a left. Will I still be working in tourism? I don’t know. All I know is that the moment I got the bookshop it completed me in a way that I could say ‘I am me.’”
According to Barbara, the bookstore was in horrible condition when she first purchased it in 2006. Stacks of books were crammed into a small, dark basement on Main Street, its former location. The previous owner inherited the shop from his parents but cared little for books. After she took over, Barbara began cleaning up immediately. Five years later, the shop moved into its current location at Marble Works with two main reading rooms and three smaller rooms dedicated to children’s books, special collections, and gardening books.
In the past year, business has been more difficult due to indefinite periods of lockdowns. However, the bookstore also received many book donations and personal support from the community, which, according to Barbara, were particularly helpful financially and mentally. Barbara based her business model on that of a traditional secondhand bookstore, so Otter Creek Used Books has very few online sales.
Despite many other businesses moving online, Barbara was determined to focus on in-person exchanges when possible. Outside of the pandemic, she is also unfazed by the entry of giants such as Amazon into the book retail sector. Barbara believes that the second-hand bookstore targets a different pool of consumers and has not been impacted too much.
“I won’t ever go online or become a digital bookshop. I want people to come in excited because they never know what they are going to find in a secondhand bookstore,” she said. “I don’t care if we are going down because of that. If we are going down, we are going to go down my way.”
Barbara has never planned to own a second-hand bookstore, yet she is content with where she ended up in life. In college, She studied education and wanted to become a teacher. Although that never ended up happening, Barbara believes that she has fulfilled most of her personal and financial goals.
When asked about her future plans, Barbara seemed surprised by the question and stopped briefly in thought.
“I am always excited when boxes of books arrive because you never know what you are going to get. Once that thrill is gone, that’s when I know my time with the shop is done,” she said. “But I’ve ran it for 15 years, and that excitement has never changed one bit.”
Florence Wu '22 is the multimedia editor specializing in photojournalism. She enjoys photography as a way of connecting with others, as well as recording special events and moments in her personal life. She is inspired by the works of Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth, Teju Cole, and Gregory Halpern. This year, she will be working on a photojournalism project on the lives of workers at the college and town of Middlebury. Feel free to contact her via email for photo, video or podcast ideas.