Their disembodied heads--larger than life--float in the storefront window. Biden. Klobuchar. Sanders. Buttigieg. One day "Chasten Buttigieg came by, and I was chatting with him," says Liz Hitchcock, co-owner of Bookery Manchester. "He said it is just so weird to see my husband's big face in the window."
In Manchester, New Hampshire, the most populous city in the state that hosts the nation's first primary on February 11, local restaurants like the Red Arrow Diner and Chez Vachon welcome Presidential candidates for food and photos every four years. In this election cycle, the Bookery--a newcomer on downtown Elm Street--is arguably the city's most populous way station for presidential hopefuls and their supporters. Some staff have even set up makeshift campaign offices there while waiting for more permanent digs.
Hitchcock and her co-owner and husband, Jeremy, opened the 16-employee independent bookstore and café in 2018--about 18 months after selling to Oracle their internet infrastructure company, Dyn, which they'd built in Manchester. The couple hoped such a business would attract more retail to the street. They also wanted to cultivate a spot "where people can have conversations about civics, politics, or education," Hitchcock says. Becoming a campaign hub wasn't in the plans. But then the staffers started showing up.
The first came in April 2019. That was Cole Riel, a state representative and New Hampshire deputy political director for Pete Buttigieg. The Buttigieg campaign didn't yet have an office in Manchester, so Riel worked out of the Bookery's café where, among other things, he held hiring meetings. Soon after that, a staffer from Elizabeth Warren's campaign set up temporary shop.
Neither introduced themselves to the Bookery's owners. "But we felt this palpable buzz. There were more and more young people coming in," Hitchcock says. "I started asking them, what's going on?" Once Hitchcock learned who her visitors were, she introduced herself and let them know the store had a conference room in back, available to rent. Several campaigns, including Amy Klobuchar's, have used that space for meetings of up to 20 people.
The Buttigieg and Warren staffers hung around the Bookery for about a month before finding a permanent home. They and others took Hitchcock up on her offer to host candidate talks and meet-and-greets. "We have had Michael Bennet and Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang," Hitchcock says. "Marianne Williamson had about 100 people in the store after she had announced the end of her campaign. We have not had Joe Biden. But Jill Biden, his wife, has come in and spoken."
As the candidates headed to New Hampshire after the Iowa Caucus, the Bookery's schedule heated up. Within the first few days, the store hosted a meet-and-greet with Tom Steyer and Buttigieg's debate-watching party. Amy Klobuchar's daughter turned up. Michael Bennet popped in again, this time with a reporter to shoot some video.
"Maybe they've heard about us from their campaigners or volunteers, or maybe they're looking for refuge from the 'ick' we've been getting the past few days," as a result of the botched Iowa Caucus, Hitchcock says. "They shake a few hands and leave. It's nicely casual."
Excited to be part of their city's electoral landscape, the Hitchcocks have promoted the Bookery as a campaign resource. "Would you like to schedule a political visit? We've got you covered!" reads a banner atop the store's website, which links to information on setting up events. All the candidates' books are prominently displayed--although not pushed on customers with signing opportunities. In the window alongside the heads, Hitchcock posts the most recent polls. On primary day, the Bookery plans to give free doughnuts to voters.
The Bookery is also among the only Manchester stores selling "first in the nation" swag, including ski hats and foam fingers, touting New Hampshire's envied position in primary season. Hitchcock says she's heard that other retailers don't go to town on primary merchandise "because they don't want to make this into a circus. So I am trying to keep this within the staunchness of the political realm," she says. "On the other hand, it is just so cool."
In addition, the Hitchcocks' family office, Orbit Group, which is independent of the bookstore, created a website to act as an information hub for events sponsored by the mayor and various groups leading up to the voting. Among the events that Orbit has helped program: trolley tours that start at the Bookery and then visit locations where candidates like John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower orated in earlier primaries; and a first-in-the-nation trivia contest at a local theater. Tulsi Gabbard showed up for that.
As for the political traffic's effect on sales, the jury is out. Day-over-day food sales are up. So is use of the rental meeting room. Book sales are flat. "We see people coming in from out of town, and we're getting people that come in for the first time," Hitchcock says. "I imagine as people from outside of Manchester learn more about where we are and what we offer, we'll see more economic outcomes for the store."
Not surprisingly, Hitchcock hopes to repeat the experience at the Bookery in 2024 with candidates for both parties. She leans Democrat and her husband leans Republican, so they consider the store bipartisan. (The couple prefer not to publicly support particular candidates.)
Still, "I don't think President Trump will come in here," Hitchcock says. "He had a rally down the street, and no one came very close to the bookstore except for the people demonstrating against him."