Friday, February 10, 2012

When a Bookstore Moves Closer, or Further Away--A Visit to Three Stores on the Way to Worcester.

What value is a trip anywhere if there isn't at least one bookstore detour? Being that I had to get from Logan Airport to Worcester for my talks at Holy Cross, I thought about what bookstore I hadn't seen that was not too far out of the way. Then I remembered reading that Newtonville Books, which I'd never been to, was planning a move. And I'd never been to Newton, despite it being in my consciousness since the days of watching Zoom, where every kid who wrote in seemed to be from there.

The store was opened by Tim Huggins in 1998, and quickly became one of those places that was constantly making news in the book world for its innovative events, combining books and brews, books and rock music. There's some memory in my brain saying there weren't any section headers in the store. Now that's a store created for discovery!

Huggins sold the store to Mary Cotton in 2007. And now they've decided to move the store from Newtonville to Newton Centre. The former is a shopping district with a nice assortment of cafes, but it is only on a bus line. There is a commuter train stop but apparently stopping every two hours isn't convenient for many people. Their new location is near a T stop, which they think will really make a difference. And there's still a decent amount of parking. One thing that's interesting about Massachusetts retail in general is that there seems to be a higher density of bank branches than in Wisconsin.

I scouted the new location and then headed to the original storefront, which is open through March. Almost immediately I found (and subsequently bought) a signed copy of Peter Orner's Love and Shame and Love, which I'd been talking about with Joel Berkowitz at UWM's Center for Jewish Studies. The new store is getting out of the used book biz and is expanding the kids' area. But the biggest change is that the store as it stands now has a dedicated events space, with chairs set up pretty much all the time. They'll be moving to the Boswell-preferred method of cases on casters, that you move out of the way for events.

At the checkout, I wound up talking with Sarah (contact me if I should drop the "h"--editor's note, she indeed has an H), who I'd met at a bookseller conference about a year and a half before, and she gave me more details. Whatever changes they make, they plan to continue their fine events schedule. I left a note for Hannah Pittard, who was there on Thursday for The Fates will Find Their Way.  And we chatted a bit about Andre Dubus's Townie, appearing on February 28.

But really, the event I wanted to attend was their celebrity book club discussion, led by Allegra Goodman, on February 16 7 pm. The book selection is Middlemarch. Can you imagine a more interesting evening? I think I could have chartered a trip with our friend Jane's class from Cardinal Strich.

Oh, and I love their signature walls in the back. It's something they can't move physically, but Tim's going to help them move it in spirit.

So enough excitement for me, so you'd think. But Claudia cut out an interesting article about a bookstore in Webster, about a half hour away, called Booksellers Gourmet. The store is tight, at about 1000 square feet, and the owner does just about everything herself. Why not visit?

One of the upsides of the possibilities of huge numbers of tiny bookstores would be how the personality of the proprietor comes to the fore. You don't have enough time to do everything, so you have to decide what's most important to you.  In this case, there was a mix of new and used books, art on the walls, quirky gift items, some chocolate, and a small cafe. Important new titles from Russell Banks and Mark Bittman shared the stage with pulp comics from a deceased author of note and artisan pottery. There was a second-hand room with "collectibles" from the 1920s and in the kids room, an assortment of Melissa and Doug toys.

The current art on display was a called "The Heart of the Matter", a multi-artist display with a timely theme. Here's a list of their other art shows.  I could criticize this or that, but then I thought about how the owner was doing this all pretty much by herself. Amazing! In keeping with the theme of the show, this store was definitely a endeavor straight from the heart of its owner.

As we were already wandering around, I asked my sister if we could visit the current location of Tatnuck Bookseller in Westborough. As you may know, Tatnuck was the beloved bookstore in Worcester. My sister said that if you went there for lunch, you'd always run into someone you know, sometimes three to four people. They opened this branch in Westborough several years ago, but wound up having to close the original location and sell off this one to new owners.

Unlike their first two locations, which were in neighborhoods, this Tatnuck shares a big box strip with national and regional chains. It's still a very large space, with books taking up a little less than half. Like many of my friends at other bookstores, there's a great number of gift items, from games and toys, to mugs and kitchenware.

If I knew the owners, I'd probably suggest more journals and boxed cards* which seem to work very well in most bookstores I visit, and less ceramic collectibles. Similarly, I might suggest playing with book sections, adding a lot more fiction, and decreasing shelf space of some of the more thinly-stocked sections like photography. Hey, some folks charge thousands of dollars for this expert service...

But in the end, cosmetic changes aren't really what's needed in order to turn my sister into a regular; everybody makes a calculation of distance and opportunity and connection as variables, and this adds up's just too far.  She needs an indie bookstore in the Worcester area**, home of several major colleges (Holy Cross, Clark, WPI, Assumption, Worcester State) and three enormous hospital campuses. As I learned in Atlanta, however, folks say they want an indie bookstore, and then are unhappy that it isn't exactly what they wanted and don't support them, and this is the unhappy house-of-card moment for indies. How do we figure out who we should please the most and still stay true to our visition, because you can't please everyone and if you don't love the store you've created, you can't put your all into it?

And the conversation continues. Back to Milwaukee to see if I learned anything. Locating closer to a light rail station is pretty much out of the question.

*For journals, how can you go wrong with Paperblanks, and for boxed cards, it seems like Galison was an obvious addition. I could be wrong, but I didn't see a presence of either at the store.

**Of course she would love it in the city limits, but admitted that just about everybody also shops in Shrewsbury.

1 comment:

Sarah Rettger said...

You got it right, hon -- the H belongs! Glad you enjoyed your visit.