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Boston’s Independent Book Scene

Off Campus | December 4, 2011
By Ellen Mayer

 

In Nora Ephron’s classic ’90s chick flick You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan plays the owner of a small children’s bookstore on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Just around the corner, a new Fox Books (a stand-in for Barnes and Noble) opens up and puts her out of business. Even as Meg Ryan finds herself falling in love with the CEO of Fox Books (Tom Hanks, of course), the movie continues to present the argument for the independent bookstore where community is paramount, where the booksellers know their customers and their books, and where a book does not cost so much, it is worth so much.

Over a decade later, journalists and industry experts alike continue to predict the demise of the independent bookstore, or even just the bookstore, and the publishing industry as we know it. Children don’t read anymore, they insist. The e-reader is destroying print media, they cry.

Meanwhile, the reality, as it plays out in Boston and across the United States, is less cut and dry. In 2008, McIntyre and Moore, a beloved used and rare bookstore in Davis Square, closed its doors. In 2010, Raven Used Books actually expanded from one musty storefront in Harvard Square to two stores—the new one with a fancier location on Newbury Street. This year, Borders, a national chain, filed for bankruptcy and liquidated all stores.

I could not tell you why Borders failed and Barnes and Noble flourishes, but I am a local bookstore junkie, and I can unpack a bit of the mystery surrounding those of the flourishing Boston booksellers who, unlike McIntyre and Moore, seem to have hit upon a formula for success.

Right in the heart of the Porter Square Shopping Center, Porter Square Books is one of the closest bookstores to Tufts, independent or not. PSB is such a fixture of the community that it is hard to believe the bookstore was founded just seven years ago, during Amazon’s ascent to dominance. Jane Dawson, one of the four co-owners, remains unconcerned by recent changes in the book industry and the media’s proclamations of doomsday. “We always believed, or we do, that an independent bookstore that has people who know books and can actually sell books and talk books is still something that people value.” This was Meg Ryan’s sentiment in You’ve Got Mail, but the difference is that Dawson actually sees it play out in her store every day. You just can’t argue with the fact that Porter Books is always busy.

Dawson emphasizes the importance of this particular neighborhood to the success of PSB. “We did a lot of research to find out where to go because with bookstores it’s a little problematic. [Porter Square] had a lot of things that we were looking for: i. t was in a busy area and the neighborhood wanted an independent bookstore.” PSB actively works to engage with the community through author events, book clubs, and a weekly story hour for children. What’s more, PSB continues the time-tested tradition of combining coffee shop and bookseller. Zing Café, which occupies the front of the store, is what first attracted me to PSB, with the promise of hot chocolate, a pastry, and a place to work. I soon discovered that PSB is also a top-flight bookstore with a wonderful selection, an emphasis on independently published books, and a friendly and knowledgeable staff. The café, though, is what solidifies the bookstore’s atmosphere as a community meeting space.

Peter Loftus, the director of Lorem Ipsum books in Inman Square, also emphasizes the importance of community. “We’ve always felt like Inman was where we fit in best,” he told me. Devoid of any chains and far from any T-stop, Inman does seem to be the place for an offbeat used bookstore whose sign over the door still reads, “Cambridge Refrigeration Specialists.” And, as he put it, more prosaically, “Here we’re right in the nexus of both bar and coffee traffic.”

Unlike most used bookstores in the area, Lorem Ipsum is fully digitized. “When the owner got it started, one of the ideas was that Lorem Ipsum was striving at being the bookstore of the future,” Loftus explained, “We were trying to reevaluate the idea of what a used bookstore could mean to a more and more digitally inclined market.” Every book in the store is logged into a computer database that you can search on the website. So, as at Barnes and Noble, you can check if a book is in the shop before coming in. Lorem Ipsum also sells its books through a handful of online retailers. In fact, at times, Lorem Ipsum does about 80% of its sales online. So why not just pack it in and become an entirely online bookseller like the Boston-based Swamp Rabbit Books? “The experience of a bookstore,” Loftus told me, “has become almost more important than I think the book itself.”

So Lorem Ipsum, like PSB, has become a community space, but in a very different way. Instead of hosting speakers and book clubs, Lorem Ipsum displays local artists’ work on the walls, throws release parties for local magazines, and hosts concerts, film screenings, and poetry readings. In addition, the bookstore is now hosting Papercut Zine Library within its walls. Zines are locally distributed DIY magazines, and Loftus thinks Papercut is possibly the largest collection of them in the world. The library officially re-opened within Lorem Ipsum in November, allowing the two entities to pool community groups. “It’s only been a month,” he said, “and I think we’ve already seen the potential for collaboration in ways that I’m not even sure we totally expected.” If this is all starting to sound like a hipster community center, you aren’t far off the mark.

Lorem Ipsum thinks of itself as a “useful” bookstore, touting a collection of critical theory, legal studies, and other academic reading. While their collection is impressive, it pales in comparison to the selection at Raven Used Books. I have been a regular browser at the tiny, dimly lit, and musty storefront in Harvard Square since the beginning of my freshman year. Neither the Harvard location, nor the newer and much more pleasant venue on Newbury, do much to create a community space. The Newbury location holds occasional talks with authors and intellectuals, but otherwise Raven just sells books. But what books? The Newbury location has a wall devoted to philosophy, an additional bookshelf for Eastern philosophy, and a hefty section solely devoted to anarchism. And they sell all this without the aid of a digital database. When I walked into the Newbury location and asked for Annie Dillard, the shopkeeper just knew that one of her books was filed under “nature” and the other under “biography.” Raven continues to be successful in both locations and is poised to expand more.

Before I saw You’ve Got Mail, I don’t think I really understood the value of the independent business, nor did I recognize the threats they faced from corporate giants. Nevertheless, I always frequented my local bookstore. After You’ve Got Mail I just had the vocabulary to explain why. Today, choosing local is a political statement and a lifestyle: farmers markets over supermarkets, Diesel over Starbucks. But not everyone who shops at a local bookstore is necessarily a locavore like myself. Some may seek out the community that is available to them at shops like Lorem Ipsum or Porter Square Books, but others, it seems, just like books.

Dawson points to her busy children’s section and the extremely popular book clubs at PSB as evidence of that fact. “People say to me, ‘Oh, well, kids aren’t reading anymore,’ and I say, ‘There are so many people here in their 20s and 30s who are in book clubs and buy books. You’re wrong. They are reading.’”