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June 16, 2012

An independent bookseller reads her market well

Daily Star

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A few years ago, someone wanting to open an independent bookstore would have been viewed as half-crazy, with the increasing trend in Internet book buying and the looming bright future in e-book sales. But Michele Pondolfino did it, anyway.

Pondolfino, who this week is offering her reading list as guidance for a hypothetical teenager, admits that the idea of opening The Green Toad Bookstore in Oneonta and competing with online buying and emerging e-book technology was "daunting."

Daunting, indeed. While independent booksellers did not experience the declines common with the big chains such as Borders, their sales were down slightly in 2009 and 2010 as online buying and e-book sales exploded.

Nonetheless, Pondolfino says she "still felt compelled to open a bookstore and thought downtown Oneonta was the perfect location for it."

Then, in the winter of 2007-2008, while reading "Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, (the protagonist in the story grows up in his father's bookstore), "there was an 'it's now or never' mentality that just kind of took over." She did her industry research, developed a business plan, attended booksellers school, "and things just fell into place from there."

And since then, the trend is more positive for independent bookstores. Through the first 20 weeks of 2012, indy book sales tracked by Nielsen BookScan have increased by 13.4 percent compared to last year.

You have to admit that Oneonta is lucky to have a bookstore such as The Green Toad downtown, and also The Rose and Laurel for used books right down the street. The experience of browsing the aisles in a new or used bookstore cannot be duplicated online or downloaded to your e-reader.

Pondolfino, an Oneonta native, says "owning a bookstore had been a dream since my earliest memories. Reading was always a passion, and an opportunity to learn fresh ideas and experiences from perspectives different than my own."

With that in mind, she suggests the following books that could serve young people well as they prepare the paths their lives might follow.

"¢ "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho is one of Pondolfino's personal favorites. She quotes directly from the book: "Along the way we learn to trust our hearts, read the seemingly inconspicuous signs, and understand that as we look to fulfill a dream, it looks to find us just the same, if we let it."

"¢ "A People's History of the United States," by Howard Zinn, "offers a history of America from the perspective of the most downtrodden and oppressed working men and women of society, leaving the reader with an experience you won't find in most modern textbooks."

"¢ "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch. After being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, Pausch leaves a legacy for his children in a book that "shares his life lessons on gratitude, values, love and humility. An excellent inspirational read."

"¢ "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose" by Eckhart Tolle. "If you really want to make positive change in your life, this is a must-read. The bottom line, lose the ego and focus on living in the moment. That's it. Get out of your own head, and in so doing, get out of your own way."

"¢ "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. "Although this classic novel is usually noted for its themes of prejudice and racism, it is also rich with ideas of good and evil, growing up, and courage all set in a small Southern town in the 1930s."

Given her own love of reading at a young age and her experience of being a mother, Pondolfino recognized the importance of books for children and hired longtime friend Anne Van Deusen to manage the children's books at The Green Toad.

An Oneonta native, Van Deusen has an English degree from Hartwick College, and her "lifelong dream of working in a bookstore was finally realized when her friend opened The Green Toad."

Van Deusen, who Pondolfino describes as "an avid reader, and a super-smart, witty woman," shared the following titles for young children and youths.

"¢ "The Giving Tree," by Shel Silverstein, is "a children's classic that emphasizes the joy of loving selflessly."

"¢ "The Sneetches" by Dr. Seuss is about "the Sneetches with stars on their bellies who are far superior to those who don't have them, and go to great lengths to be exclusive, leaving the Sneetches without stars feeling sad and rejected." Eventually, the Sneetches realize we're all fundamentally the same.

"¢ "Watership Down" by Richard Adams is "a classic fantasy novel centered on a group of rabbits whose warren is destroyed, necessitating a search for a new home." The rabbits' odyssey teaches lessons in leadership, environment, adapting and home.

The books listed above do provide guideposts for young people of differing ages as they encounter and must respond to the situations that life experience brings their way.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer who can be reached at