When Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that she’d be touring to promote her new memoir, “Hard Choices,” Books & Books owners Denise Berthiaume and Jack McKeown knew they had to throw their hats in the ring.The odds were stacked against them and their modest bookstore on Main Street in Westhampton Beach, even though the former first lady—and now presidential candidate—frequently visits the East End during the summer. Taking a chance, they emailed Ms. Clinton’s publisher, Simon & Schuster. And again. And again.
The response: tepid, at best.
They’d all but given up, when a man wandered into the store one August afternoon. His name was Robert Barnett, an old friend of Mr. McKeown from his publishing days in Manhattan—and literary agent for both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“I said, ‘Bob!’ He said, ‘Jack, you own this store?’” Mr. McKeown recalled. “So we started talking, and I said, ‘You know, Bob, I’ve been trying to get your girl here for about six months.’ Twenty-four hours later, I got a call from the Simon & Schuster team and the Clinton organization saying it’s happening, and we have five days to get ready.”
While other bookstores had months to prepare for Ms. Clinton’s publicity tour, the four-year-old boutique bookstore had less than a week. A day after getting the call, Secret Service agents arrived to get the shop ready. Four days after that, a line of fans, avid readers and curious tourists spanned block after block.
All in all, nearly a thousand books sold that Sunday afternoon alongside the former secretary of state, who, just this week, launched her second campaign for the White House.
“It was a great success, and she was terrific,” Ms. Berthiaume said. “She was extremely personable with us, sitting here like we are—just very, very warm and personable.”
Fittingly, as Ms. Clinton once again attempts to make history, this particular bookstore made some history of its own last week: being named Publishers Weekly’s top bookseller in America.
Mr. McKeown and Ms. Berthiaume shared the honor with the handful of fellow Books & Books branches in Florida and the Cayman Islands, but, as Mr. McKeown pointed out, the recognition is based more on the efforts of independent bookstores that, despite the rise of electronic books and the fall of major corporations such as Borders, have continued to not only survive but thrive.
“We think it’s more indicative of an acknowledgment that what we’re trying to do well is what independent bookstores that are starting to thrive across the country are all doing well,” he said. “That is, disrupt this narrative of digital disruption and refocus on the core strengths of customer interaction, inventory, hand-selling—effective, local marketing and events programming that’s really community driven.”
From hosting David Sedaris at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center to organizing a cocktail hour with Candace Bushnell, the Remsenburg-based couple is constantly seeking new ways of drawing people into their store.
Prior to opening their branch in 2010, Mr. McKeown and Ms. Berthiaume built long, successful careers working around books, the former as a publisher for the likes of Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, the latter the proprietor of her own agency, Verso Advertising, where she still works three days a week.
Unsurprisingly, both are bookworms, who perpetually keep stacks of early-release galleys at their bedsides. Ms. Berthiaume handles the fiction and women’s literature, while Mr. McKeown tends more toward non-fiction with the occasional historical fiction espionage novel sprinkled in. They each write pithy synopses of the ones they’ve read and then hang them next to the respective books in the store, and encourage their employees to do the same, giving the collection a more personal feel.
“People love the shelf talkers,” Ms. Berthiaume said. “All the staff is encouraged to do it. We don’t tell them what to read or write, we all have our favorites … People really respond to this.”
For more information about Books & Books Westhampton Beach, visit booksandbookswhb.com.