North Country Books, a Utica publisher and major wholesaler and distributor of books throughout Upstate New York and Northern New England, is expected to close by the end of the year according to company owner Rob Igoe Jr.
The firm is a victim of COVID-19 Pandemic, Igoe told the New York Almanack, but noted that times have been tough since their biggest clients, Borders and Walden Books, closed in 2011.
Their most recent wholesale catalog included more than 4,000 books, posters, CDs and DVDs, note cards, maps, calendars, and more. Their focus was books about New York State and Northern New England, especially history and biography, folklore, nature and trail guides, and art and photography. They’ve published over 100 authors and a couple hundred titles over the years, according to Igoe.
The company made a name for itself by servicing small book sellers in independent bookstores, but also corner stores, gift shops, hardware stores, pharmacies, museum shops and other places that sell books as a sideline.
According to Igoe and a 1985 Utica Observer-Dispatch profile by Bill Farrell, the company was founded in 1965 by printer Harold W. Charbonneau, artist John D. Mahaffy, and Rev. Frank A. Reed. Maffay was an owner of Booneville Graphics with a penchant for designing books. The first book they published was Reed’s Lumberjack Sky Pilot, the story of his adventures as a minister to north woods logging camps.
Reed graduated from Union College in 1923 and Auburn Seminary in 1926. He was a founder of Northern Logger magazine in the 1950s.
In 1977, Igoe’s father, Rob Igoe Sr. of Sylvan Beach, acquired the retiring Reed’s share of the company. He himself had recently retired from owning and operating Grant’s Book Shop in Utica. Mahaffy and Charbonneau stayed on as partners. There first book together was The “Old Line Mail”: Stagecoach Days in Upstate New York, by Richard Palmer. The book covered the 19th century stage coach routes from Albany to Utica, Utica to Canandaigua and Ithaca to the Catskills.
In 1982, about the time Igoe Sr.’s daughter Shelia joined the company, North Country Books moved to Utica.
Rob Jr. got onboard in 1989, just in time to watch the decline of independent bookstores in the 1990s.
In 1994, when Amazon.com was founded (selling only books), independent book sellers in New York were already competing with recently expanded national chain booksellers such as Barnes and Noble and Borders.
Buy Local campaigns and the awareness of the plight of independent shops have helped reverse that trend to some extent, but the COVID-19 pandemic has increased pressure on the kinds of shops that were North Country Books’ staple customers. The last national chain of bookstores, Barnes and Noble, closed two thirds of its stores when the pandemic hit in March.
Local booksellers will carry on, a disappointed Igoe says. “We’ve been working really hard over many years trying to improve and grow the upstate book market, but the formula just doesn’t add up anymore.”
He said he’s working to transition the existing business connections to other publishers and distributors.
The loss of North Country Books leaves Bloated Toe Press as the largest publisher and distributor of books in Upstate New York.