As Maureen Karb, head of Como Sales, wrote in her nominating letter for 16-year-old Porter Square Books in the Porter Square Shopping Center in Cambridge, Mass., “Since buying the store in 2013, Dina [Mardell] and David [Sandberg] have consistently been at the cutting edge of bookselling. They have taken a store that was honestly pretty amazing from the beginning, and somehow made it even better.”
Sandberg and Mardell, who are married, hadn’t planned on buying a bookstore seven years ago. But when Mardell spotted an ad for their local bookstore, the timing was right. She had long worked as a teacher, most recently for preschool students; Sandberg handled business development for Google following the tech giant’s 2011 purchase of the flight information software company where he had served as founding attorney and vice president.
Of the many innovations that Karb singled out in nominating Porter Square to be PW’s Bookstore of the Year, arguably the most important is Mardell and Sandberg’s 2018 decision to sell half the store to a group of nine, soon to be 11, members of senior management. That decision has also helped the bookstore weather the Covid-19 crisis—and could enable it to emerge even stronger.
Having more owners has allowed the store to do local deliveries and ship out online orders more easily after it was forced to close to the public because of the pandemic. Under Massachusetts’s shelter-in-place orders, owners can be in their stores. Having more booksellers has also given Sandberg and Mardell more people to bounce ideas off of during the crisis.
To be clear, says Sandberg on a Zoom call with the other owners, “one of the things we didn’t do in order to be prepared was to sell off half the store to a group of our employees. For Dina and me, the fact that we have this group of owners rather than just the two of us has made dealing with this whole Covid thing much more doable. A really significant burden has been shared.”
Sandberg adds that the new model of selling a book online is a lot more work than traditional bricks-and-mortar bookselling. That’s because Porter Square’s 4,480-sq.-ft. location—which includes 3,225 sq. ft. of selling space plus Café Zing—was designed for browsing and holding events. The bookstore doesn’t have the staff to support online-only sales. “To do it means using resources in a way we haven’t used them before,” he notes. “We need to rethink staffing and how we set things up.”
This isn’t the first time in Porter Square’s history that it’s been owned by a group of booksellers: the store was founded by six booksellers, who had worked together at Concord Bookshop in Concord, Mass., and left in 2003 following a managerial shake-up. But such a large group of co-owners is unusual, and the fact that Mardell and Sandberg structured it so that the staff wouldn’t have to put up any cash makes it even rarer. Senior staff are buying into the store over a decade using a portion of the store’s profits. Sales at the store have increased year over year since the pair purchased it and were up 4.5% in 2019. But Sandberg says that streak will end in 2020.
At the time of the sale of an ownership stake to the staff, Sandberg told PW, “We’re going to be in bad shape if the only people who own bookstores are the ones who have the money. The people who should be owning this bookstore are the ones who are most responsible for it being what it is, and those [people] are the staff.”
Adult book buyer Ellen Jarrett says, “It’s hard to think before this time, meaning the Covid experience. I know that [being part owner] has certainly made me feel more invested in making sure that the store is doing well—that we’re out there filling orders and staying in touch with our customers.”
Similarly, children’s book buyer Robin Sung notes, “As life has become more difficult and complicated, I feel more invested. I didn’t think I could, but I do. And you get to know aspects of the business that you didn’t know you needed to pay attention to before because they didn’t affect you directly.”
Another reason that Porter Square was prepared when the bookstore was shuttered to customers is that it had developed an active social media and online sales presence. The latter has continued to grow since 2013, when Neil Gaiman designated Porter Square the only store other than Barnes & Noble that could sell advance signed copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The following year, Porter Square began shipping its first overseas orders as part of its signed preorder campaign for The Art of Asking by singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer (Gaiman’s wife). Since then, the store has launched several exclusive preorder campaigns, including one for Grace Lin’s Mulan Before the Sword earlier this year.
“The other day, when I was at the store, a man tried to look through the front door. Our community misses us, and we miss them,” says Sung, her voice trembling.
“We also miss our authors,” Jarrett adds.
During the pandemic the store stays in touch with the community largely through social media, virtual events, and Shelf Stable, a daily-ish newsletter that it launched during the crisis. Edited on alternate days by Josh Cook, marketing director, bookseller, and magazine buyer, and Leila Meglio, events manager, the newsletter includes an essay or letter by one of the staff; fun features, such as quarantine-specific writing prompts; information on books and games; and a link to bedtime stories that the store offers nightly at 8:45 p.m. on Instagram. “The subscription base is smaller than our other newsletters, but there are more click-throughs,” Meglio says.
Pre-Covid-19, Porter Square had an active events schedule, with roughly 200 in-store author appearances a year, small salons held in individuals’ living rooms, and events with the Cambridge Public Library, where Sandberg is a board member. Several popular adult events have been adapted from ones for kids, such as Grown Up Book Fairs held at a local brewery and Reader Prom, in which participants bring a book to donate to a homeless shelter as their date.
After receiving a James Patterson grant in 2014 to get books to underserved kids, the bookstore launched a nonprofit foundation to bring authors to schools in Cambridge and neighboring Somerville and give every child who attends an event a signed book. In 2019, the store gave away more than 1,000 books to kids. During the pandemic, it has distributed 300 book bundles donated by customers for kids in Somerville to pick up with their lunches. In May, the store’s foundation will donate an additional 500 book bundles.
In recent years, Porter Square has experimented with pop-up stores: one at the holidays in an empty storefront in the same shopping center where the bookstore is located and a weeklong one at Bow Market, a new shopping area in Somerville. According to Cook, the owners have discussed launching more. “Pop-ups do an interesting thing in creating their own extra publicity,” he says. “So even if the pop-up itself isn’t a huge sales generator, it’s a huge publicity generator.”
Whether the bookstore has pop-ups later this year depends a lot on what bookselling looks like once the shelter-in-place order is lifted in Massachusetts. “Is the new normal going to be a lot of people who used to be Amazon customers sticking with us?” Cook asks. “And will the online order burden be relatively high?”
Sandberg says, “Right now, we’re still fundamentally set up to be a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, not an online bookstore.” In keeping with that, he and the other owners are moving forward with opening a second location across the river in Boston’s Seaport District this fall. The new store, named Porter Square Books: Boston Edition, will be a 1,300-sq.-ft. general bookstore inside the Center for Creative Writing, which will also house GrubStreet, Boston’s writing center, and Mass Poetry. The mix of books will reflect the area’s demographics, less residential and more touristy, and will include more books by GrubStreet authors. The store’s summer opening was delayed when the city put a temporary halt on construction projects due to Covid-19.
As for GrubStreet, its enthusiasm about having Porter Square as a partner hasn’t wavered since the project was announced in March 2019. “We have always admired Porter Square Books, not only for their community-mindedness and their supremely knowledgeable booksellers but for their commitment to equity for their management staff,” says Christopher Castellani, GrubStreet’s artistic director. “They are true visionaries in the bookselling world, and we feel immensely proud and lucky to have them with us on this new adventure.”
Bookstore of the Year judges: Rachel Geiger, Chronicle Books; Sanj Kharbanda, Beacon Press; Ruth Liebmann, PRH; Cindy Heidemann, Publishers Group West and Two Rivers; and Karen Torres, Hachette Book Group.
Attention! PW Awards Ceremonies Go Virtual
With the cancellation of this year’s in-person BookExpo, PW’s 2020 awards will be given out virtually. The 2020 Bookstore of the Year award ceremony will be held on June 11 following ABA’s town hall, which takes place during the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s virtual Spring Forum (June 10–11). The 2020 Rep of the Year award will be given at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance’s virtual Discovery Show (Sept. 11–13).