Not Your Father's Bookstore
Judith Rosen -- 11/13/00
Breaking the mold, with no category signs and no discounting, Newtonville Books is going strong

Given that most small businesses fail within their first five years, the fact that Newtonville Books in Newtonville, Mass., just marked its second birthday might seem a little premature as a cause for celebration. But given the way the store has worked itself into the fabric of its local community, and the book community as a whole, in just 24 months, it's clear that if any bookstore can beat the odds in today's Amazon/chain superstore age, then Newtonville will.
The store was originally Timothy Huggins's MBA project and was born in October 1998, within weeks of his other child, Ilana. At first, Huggins, who had worked at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss., and the University of Mississippi Press, before coming north to attend Boston University's Graduate School of Management, wasn't sure that he wanted to stay in the book business. "It helped," he told PW "that I didn't get any second interviews from consulting companies during the recruiting days at graduate school."

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With his pony-tailed blond-brown hair, faded jeans and sandals, Huggins no more resembles a recent MBA grad than his 1,500-square-foot bookstore, located just west of Boston, seems like a suburban retailer. For starters, Newtonville has a single relatively discreet sign, and that is on the outside of the building. Inside the brightly painted bookstore, there is no signage to mark the sections, and new books spill off jam-packed shelves and are piled on the carpeted floor.

But even the chaos is carefully orchestrated, and the bookcases are arranged to give plenty of wall space to an ever-changing display of artwork from the nearby NewArt Center. There's a comfortable sofa to read on and plenty of floor space for loungers, including a special cubby with a big stuffed dog for infants and toddlers.

Huggins, who is on the Advisory Council for both the ABA and NEBA, acknowledges that, at least initially, customers are frustrated at having to guess where the sections are located. Even so, he has no intention of adding hints any time soon. "It creates a rapport between the staff and the people coming in for the first time," he noted. Also, signs would interfere with his overriding concept for Newtonville: "If you could have a home library, this would be it."

In the back of the store, up a few steps, Huggins has a tiny office, which also contains a glass-front bookcase with his collection of modern first editions. Next to his desk is the doorway to the store's cavernous reading space, an unfinished room that can be filled with up to 60 wooden folding chairs, depending on the event. When Thomas Beller, author of The Sleep-Over Artist (W.W. Norton), read at Newtonville, he described the space as "raw. [The reading] had a clandestine feel to it, as though this were some samizdat event in the Prague spring, or some art event in SoHo in the '70s."

No doubt that edgy energy emanated from Huggins himself, who frets not just about his store, but about bookselling in general. He worries about discounting, for instance, something that he has consciously chosen not to do. "I know some customers want me to discount, and I'll probably lose some business," he said. "In the last five years, price has now gotten more important than book reviews and recommendations, which has real implications for midlist books that have literary and cultural value. So it's not just that I'm cheap. We give teachers 10% off and bookclubs ordering 25 or more copies of a single title are given 25% off. It's a nice thing, and it rewards them for being efficient."

Despite the store's quirkiness--no signs, no discounts and its small size--business has been good. "The first year," said Huggins, "I was a year ahead of the business plan. At the end of December, we may break even." Because of the strength of store events, which have doubled from one per week last spring to two a week this fall, he has already increased his marketing budget to the point where he had expected it would be in year three or four, to support advertising in the local newspaper and in programs for the local theater company.

Huggins credits in-store events, close to 100 to date, with raising the store's profile in a hurry. For him, the bare minimum for an author event means "the book has been advertised and the market's been stimulated. We'll sell most of our books after an author has been here. So I tend not to return books for a while. As a bookstore, it's important to invest in the book."

All of which is not to say that Huggins has neglected e-commerce for the touch and feel of personal bookselling. Newtonville's Web site ( is up-to-date and well trafficked. It includes lists of the store's bestsellers, staff picks, upcoming events and, of course, Huggins's pet Lizard Collection (the store's first editions).

But for Huggins, the physical store, his staff and the authors are what make it all worthwhile. Clearly his efforts have not gone unnoticed. As local Newtonian Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent (Picador), said, "I never had a neighborhood bookstore before. I didn't know what I was missing until Tim opened Newtonville Books. It's a destination for the soul. A haven on a rainy day. A source of random inspiration."

Yes, if any independent can survive in suburbia in the '00s, the smart money's on the new kid on the block, Newtonville Books.