Saving Williamsport's Soul
Neil Gaiman said it best in American Gods: “A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not fooling a soul.” By that measure, Williamsport is an old soul—with the oldest independent bookstore in continuous operation in the U.S., founded in 1841.
But in 2016, that was no sure thing. Betsy Rider, the face and voice of the Otto Bookstore for over fifty years, was selling the store that had been in her family since 1928, the store where generations of Riders had served this community. It seemed unthinkable that Betsy would not be there, and rumors abounded that the store would not be sold and would have to close. In fact, the end of the Otto Bookstore seemed certain—if you read the articles, or heard the talk in the streets of Williamsport. “We had to fight the perception that we were closing,” says Kathryn Nassberg, one of the new owners. But it wasn’t until May of 2017 that the announcement of the sale was made public, with Kathryn and husband Isak Sidenbladh taking over one of the treasures of Williamsport.
It was only right that the new owners had significant connections to Williamsport. Kathryn grew up in the town, and in the Otto Bookstore, and, as she traveled, she continued to order books for herself and her family from the store. Isak, her husband, hails originally from Sweden, but has deep roots in book publishing, and was a familiar face in the bookstore during visits to Kathryn’s family.
“We bought [the bookstore] because we thought we were in a good position,” Kathryn says. “We were the right people, and this was the right time for us.” The community responded in kind. Kathryn notes that one of the major surprises after taking over the store was the relief and gratitude that many people expressed to the new owners, and pleasure in the continuation of the store.
A year later, Kathryn remarks that the time has gone very quickly. There was work to do, both with learning to run a store, and in developing a more cohesive look. That meant repainting, and adjusting the layout to create a dedicated children’s space. The Otto Bookstore has long had an extensive selection of children’s books, and now showcases this feature in an area that is cozy but more open. It wasn’t until the new signage was installed that customers actually saw the new colors—for this is a store where the books have always claimed center stage. A new logo was designed to help create a more unified look, and to use the actual name of the business. The Otto Bookstore has always been the correct name, but the community has called the store “Otto’s” for ages—to the point where the actual name was becoming lost.
One thing that the new owners didn’t want to change at all is the store’s heart, which is the staff that is renowned for customer service.
“The staff is fantastic—every review of the Otto Bookstore is centered on the amazing customer service,” says Kathryn. Alissa Dubois, Nancy McCarty, and Tom Rider (Betsy Rider’s youngest son) are the kind of people who know books, who read books, and who know their customers. And the store is the place to go for recommendations, for a quick chat about the latest great book you just read, or to see friendly people who care.
Kathryn and Isak completed the core of the store’s staff with long time friends from Canada—Dolly and Andrew Brum. Dolly’s family hails from New England, and Andrew was involved in his family’s milk processing plant. Andrew’s family, like the Riders, sold a family business. But, unlike the Otto Bookstore sale, the sale of Andrew’s family’s business meant that Andrew no longer had a job. They were in New England on a family vacation, unsure of the next step, when Kathryn and Isak called with a proposition: How about managing a bookstore in Williamsport?
So Dolly and Andrew moved to Williamsport to complete the team. It was Andrew’s years of experience working in a family business that is making this team so perfect for the store. He admits “it’s been a bridge year,” as he works between the staff and the new owners, and adds “I learned early on [in my life] that you’re never ‘off the clock.’ Even when you’re not working, you’re representing that family and the business.” Andrew brings a strong small business background and is detail oriented, and so meshes well with the staff. Even the area where the Brums lived in Canada was very similar to Williamsport, with small cities, and lots of rural areas.
Ultimately it’s a blending of old and new, and building on a legacy that has been one of the heartbeats of Williamsport for over 175 years. Kathryn sees part of this rich heritage as a tradition of outreach to the community. She and Isak look to the future by becoming even more active partners in the city, in the schools and colleges, and in the vibrant arts community. And they would like to see the Otto Bookstore have the look and feel of this remarkable heritage. But in all the new signs and designs, there is an echo of the Otto’s that Williamsporters have known and loved for over eighty years. Betsy’s “heart” still beats at the center of the audio ending of every commercial: “Serving generations of readers from the heart of downtown Williamsport since 1841.”