Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury Street in Boston's Back Bay will close its doors at the end of the year, according to owner Vincent McCaffrey, who wrote his college thesis on bookselling and sold books from a pushcart before opening the store 27 years ago. McCaffrey blamed the situation on the popularity of Internet bookselling and steep rents along Newbury Street.
Avenue Victor Hugo recently began a two-month sale to sell off much of its inventory of a quarter-million magazines and 150,000 used books. McCaffrey hopes to raise enough money to relocate the store in a less-expensive part of Boston, near public transportation. "If we sell one third of the books at half price, we'd be in condition to move," McCaffrey told PW. "We're going to try and hopefully have enough money to pay for moving."
Although Avenue Victor Hugo originally opened with 80% new books and 20% used, the mix was quickly reversed to 80% used books. In June, with the steady decline in business, McCaffrey was forced to stop carrying new books entirely. McCaffrey blames his troubles on the changing mix of Newbury Street itself, which was mostly warehouses when he moved in. "What's hot on this street right now is shoes and clothes, restaurants and hair salons," said McCaffrey. When Tower Records was in the building that the Virgin Megastore now occupies across the street, it attracted more young people, in the 16—21 age group, according to McCaffrey. His store also benefited from the now-shuttered Waterstone's, which brought him customers in search of hard-to-find titles.
McCaffrey's difficulties began in earnest in 1999. "In the last three years," he estimated, "the Internet has taken away a good third of our business. Our biggest single audience is students, and they'll buy their whole syllabus off the Internet. No more browsing." Book dealers who once frequented the store now prefer to do their shopping on line. And the lack of parking downtown has cut into Avenue Victor Hugo's suburban customer base, which also shops via the Web.
Only a few independents have managed to hang on in downtown Boston. Bernie Flynn, owner of the only remaining general bookstore in the Back Bay, the 4,800-square-foot Trident Booksellers & Café, said that he has not experienced the same losses as Avenue Victor Hugo, although he conceded, "the rents around here are nuts." Flynn, too, has revised his product mix since opening the store in 1984. However, he took the opposite tack. "We have very few used books. We do mostly new literary books. For us," continued Flynn, "business is good. Our sales have been going up in both the café and the bookstore."
Until he finds a suitable new space, McCaffrey plans to continue to maintain his Web site, www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com, which provides detailed listings for about 10% of the store's stock, or 15,000 titles.