In their just released business book, A Perfect Mess, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman describe the 50-year-old New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton Highlands, Mass., as "[a] dense, dingy, 30,000-square-foot forest of cheap, cramped shelving" with a mix of discount and remainder books. The authors go on to say that it is precisely New England Mobile's refusal to look like a sleek superstore that makes it so inviting. "The Book Fair is a mess," write Abrahamson and Freedman. "And therein... lies the secret of its success."

The kind of "messiness" that Abrahamson and Freedman discuss is just one of the factors that make New England Mobile one of the area's largest independents. The store, which was never "mobile" and never a "book fair," as COO/general counsel Steven Gans points out, caters to the public and sells wholesale to schools and libraries and cash-and-carry to other booksellers. It moved to its current location in 1972, and eight years later it added a separate cookbook division, Jessica's Biscuit. Together, the two operations have annual revenue of more than $10 million.

To appeal to librarians and wholesale clients, New England Mobile has shelved books by publisher and title since its founding by chemist Louis Strymish in West Roxbury in 1957. And to assist general customers, Strymish sprinkled copies of Books in Print throughout the store. In recent years, New England Mobile has made some additional accommodations, including computer terminals with Ingram's database and more categories, nearly 80 in all. In addition, the store now groups together books by major authors. As for the total number of titles, neither buyer Jon Strymish or his brother David, who have shared the day-to-day running of the store since 1983 when their father, Louis, died, has an exact count.

For its first half century, New England Mobile has operated without a computerized inventory system and has no immediate plans to add one. "When you see that something is almost gone, you write it down on a yellow legal pad," said Jon. In lieu of a café, New England Mobile sells its own Biscuit Brand Coffee, which is roasted daily in its Foxborough warehouse and served in some of Greater Boston's best restaurants.

Bucking another trend—the one where flat is the new up—New England Mobile continues to grow. "In 2005, we were up 17%," said Gans, who is still closing the books for 2006, but expects to finish the year with a small gain. Although the retail and wholesale operations have long accounted for most of the store's past increases, in the last few years, Gans said, the cookbook division has been the sales driver. "Jessica's Biscuit is the one with meteoric growth," said Gans. "It's a model that's working much better in these times." Jessica's Biscuit now accounts for about 40% of total company sales.

Originally launched as a traditional mail-order business, online discount cookbook retailer Jessica's Biscuit ( has grown considerably since its inaugural ad in Gourmet magazine netted seven orders. According to Gans, Jessica's gets up to eight orders a minute when holiday e-mails hit for books like The Silver Spoon(Phaidon) or Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa Entertains at Home (Clarkson Potter).

Part of the way Jessica's stays so nimble is through strategic partnerships with online publications such as Conde Nast's and cookware reseller It has also cut costs by sending out fewer catalogues, 600,000 as opposed to two million, when it still did prospecting by mail.

Unlike the rest of New England Mobile, Jessica's has a computerized inventory database of 14,000 titles. Strymish estimates that counting in single-copy books would bring it closer to 20,000. Together, New England Mobile and Jessica's have 80 to 85 employees, and the two share a 35,000-sq.-ft. facility in Foxborough.