“Supply Your Imagination” is an apt slogan for the Recycled Reading of Vermont Books and Instruments emporium, where you can buy things that appeal to the mind, body, and spirit.
This month marks the 11th anniversary of the shop on the corner of Main Street and South Street in Bristol. To celebrate, Founder and Owner Melissa Hernandez is hosting an event in front of her 1 Main St. store on July 23, complete with live music, discounted items and raffle giveaways.
Hernandez has transformed her shop from what was originally a small antique shop into a cornucopia for musical instruments, art supplies, children’s items, board games, CDs and DVDs, and more.
The store initially opened at 25 Main St., the current location of the Hermit Thrust Fiber Co. yarn and knitting store. When originally conceived, the concept for Recycled Reading was a beautiful antique shop that also included a collection of DVDs and CDs. Hernandez had worked at a Barnes and Noble and discount bookstore in the past and felt well-equipped to launch another.
She initially used social media and outreach to provide some of her collection and was pleasantly surprised by the response she received.
“We would come in the morning and there would be three boxes of books right outside,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes people would leave their names but otherwise just say ‘take that,’ and that was a big help.”
In addition to community support, she was supported and encouraged by Carol Wells of Bristol Downtown Community Partnership Inc. (known as Bristol CORE), which helped make Recycled Reading’s first year a success.
Although business was good for the first year, it wasn’t long before Hernandez had music added to her collection.
“I was listening to an album by Bob McNally, who makes these things called ‘strumsticks,'” Hernandez said. “And I was like, Wow, that would be great to wear. You can put it in your backpack and it’s so easy to play.”
The strumstick is a three-string musical instrument specially designed for beginners. Because of the tuning and the way the frets are arranged, it’s easier to learn than a six-string guitar.
Before coming to Vermont, Hernandez ran a folk music store and worked at another full-line music store. She was able to use the connections she had made in music retail to secure four strumsticks to begin Recycled Reading’s instrument collection. She put a strumstick in the window and within five minutes she had sold one.
At first she was reluctant to expand the instrument collection. But after their instant success with the three-stringed instrument, people started wandering around asking for other strings. Hernandez changed her mind about carrying musical instruments in her bookstore.
“I thought, what harm could it do to get a few more strings?” she said.
Hernandez started out selling ukuleles, hand drums, and a few other smaller instruments and soon outgrew their shop. She also wanted to sell guitars, but at 800 square feet, 25 Main St. was too small to fit an entire line of guitars.
In 2014, Recycled Reading moved across the street to 20 Main St. — a 1,300-square-foot space — and began selling guitars. Again, Hernandez saw instant success and sold about 70% of her guitar collection in six weeks. She began expanding her instrument choices to include mandolins, banjos, harmonicas, and a plethora of other folk instruments.
“Everyone really supported me,” she recalls. “I sold a couple of guitars on the first day of my grand opening and I think people were really hungry to have something local.”
Back then, the awning of the shop said “Art Supplies”. Hernandez couldn’t afford to buy a new canopy, having just acquired the new space in addition to her ever-expanding instrument collection. She was already considering adding an art department anyway, and that was the perfect reason for the launch.
“People kept asking, so I started getting art supplies,” she said. “It was supposed to be a small section, but it just got bigger as people kept asking for things.”
As this section and all others continue to grow, she had to move again.
In 2018, she crossed the street again and moved down the block to 1 Main St., which at 1,800 square feet is 1,000 square feet larger than her original store.
There was a lot of work to be done in what was her biggest move yet, but Hernandez credits her friends from Bristol’s folk jam scene for helping move her entire inventory along with a fresh coat of paint, and her friend Karl Lawson for setting up the shelving that now houses her extensive Book collection included, as well as other jobs around the store
“I don’t know what I would have done without him,” she said.
By this point, the store had experienced something that Hernandez had not originally intended. As customers, locals and travelers alike, demanded more and more things she didn’t have, the store continued to expand in all directions, including a much larger children’s department.
Hernandez credits her ability to find vendors of discounted products, especially books, to grow her business. She admits she has a knack for scouting for potential vendors who could get her the books she wants at discounted prices.
While she prides herself on finding these wholesale discounted vendors, she also prides herself on the quality of her products and doesn’t sell anything she wouldn’t use or read about herself.
“I curate everything and I don’t get discount books just because they’re cheap,” she said. “It’s packed in here; I have no place for bad books.”
Additionally, she’s always willing to trade in items for used books or swap her items for things like eggs, maple syrup, organic produce, and work in the store.
In the current state of the store, there are five distinct sections: Musical Instruments, Children’s Products, Art Supplies, Books, and Games. In between are other tchotchkes and various items you didn’t know you wanted until they were on display in front of you.
When COVID hit, Hernandez had to adjust to touchless deliveries and curbside pickups, but continued to listen to what customers wanted to ensure she could be that pipeline for Addison County.
“Puzzles paid my rent pretty well for two months,” Hernandez said.
Like most companies, COVID hasn’t been kind to Recycled Reading, and Hernandez has had to use a significant portion of her savings to pay her vendors. However, she found that the pandemic and Vermonters’ general impulse to shop locally brought in a slew of new customers, local and non-local, perhaps to try out the always-fun steel tongue drum or read their extensive history book section.
“I just feel so good when people come up and tell me that the friends they live with in Vermont told them they needed to come here,” she said. “Post COVID people would come in and tell me how happy they were that I’m still open and that gives me the impetus to keep going.
“I will continue to get what people want.”
Melissa Hernandez and the Recycled Reading of Vermont Books and Instruments are here to stay. Whether you’re looking to start plucking the electric bass or start your career playing the multiplayer board game Settlers of Catan, Recycled Reading likely has what you’re looking for.