Singled out as one of the 10 most literate cities in the U.S. in a 2005 study by Central Connecticut State University, Boston—like all of Massachusetts—has long placed an emphasis on books and reading. Not only has the Bay State been home to writers ranging from e.e. cummings to Khalil Gibran, Emily Dickinson, John Cheever, John Updike, David McCullough, Gregory Maguire and Sue Miller, but the first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, was published in Worcester in 1789.
Other Massachusetts literacy firsts include the first college in North America (Harvard, 1636), the first public elementary school (Roxbury, 1669) and the first major municipal free public library (the Boston Public Library, 1854). At 80, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge is the oldest continuous poetry bookstore in the U.S., while Schoenhof's Foreign Books (1856), a few blocks away, is the oldest foreign-language bookstore—and the fifth-oldest continuously operating bookseller. Andover Bookstore (1809) in Andover holds the number two spot.
Massachusetts was also the headquarters for one of the longest-operating regional bookstore chains, Lauriat's Booksellers, which had a 127-year run and 71 stores at the time of its closing in 1999. “There's no room for regional bookstore chains anymore, [only] one or two national players and niches. There's no middle anymore,” said David Didriksen, who began his career at two other well-known regionals, now defunct, Paperback Booksmith and Book Corner, before opening Willow Books & Cafe in Acton in 1996.
Despite several more recent high-profile closings including Buck-A-Book in 2005 and WordsWorth Books in 2004, Massachusetts bookstores have fared better than their counterparts in other parts of the country, said New England Independent Booksellers Association executive director Steve Fischer. Between 2001 and 2004, ABA membership dropped roughly 30%, while the number of NEIBA's Massachusetts members declined only 12%, from 201 to 176. NEIBA membership continued to remain relatively stable at 164 in 2006 even though additional retailers continue to open. Target, for example, didn't open its first store in the Bay State until 1999, and now has 23 discount stores.
“While sales are not up double digits at many stores, it's not all doom and gloom by any stretch,” said John Mendelson, director of field sales for Houghton Mifflin. “I'd be surprised to see too much more attrition. It's a state that reads, and I see a lot of bright spots out there like Porter Square Books [in Cambridge] and the Bookloft [in Great Barrington]. They've always sought to evaluate and reevaluate their business.” In addition, Massachusetts businesses may have better economic times ahead. According to a report in the April 28 edition of the Boston Globe, the state's economy, which had been sluggish for the past few years, bounced back in the first quarter of 2007 and grew nearly four times as fast as the U.S. economy overall, 4.7% versus 1.3%. The median household income in Massachusetts, $53,610, already makes it the fifth-wealthiest state.
Although Massachusetts bookselling is dominated by older stores like Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton Highlands, which just hit the half-century mark, new stores continue to open. Porter Square Books opened in 2004 in North Cambridge and is more than meeting its own expectations. “We've tried to do everything right,” says managing director Dale Szczeblowski. “In this day and age, you have to do everything right and have a great location. In our particular case, we're lucky to have a density of population that can support our store and not have a chain store on our doorstep.”
Tatnuck Bookseller, Gift Gallery and Cafe opened 18 months ago in Westborough with assets purchased from the former Tatnuck in Worchester. The store is in the midst of a remodel expected to be completed later this summer that includes a huge fountain, 1,600 square feet of event space and 6,000 square feet of gifts.
Part of the reason for so many Massachusetts bookstores' longevity is their resilience and willingness to reinvent themselves. When Ifeanyi Menkiti bought Grolier last year, he not only repainted the store, changed the display tables and rematted photos of the many well-known poets who have visited the shop, he also changed the inventory mix. Now Grolier has more new releases, as well as books by poets from Africa and around the world. General manager Daniel Wuenschel said the store is looking to become a poetry community center.
“We've brought in sidelines and used books, and we're doing more and more events,” said Dana Brigham, describing some of the changes at 46-year-old Brookline Booksmith, which was named Boston's Best Bookstore by Boston magazine for six of the past eight years. At Concord Bookshop, founded 67 years ago, general manager John Netzer has tried to maintain the store's historic identity, yet bring it forward into the 21st century. While staffers continue to greet customers by name much as they always have, and the bookshop displays books by local authors like Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau, it has also begun to highlight books in the media, from NPR to People magazine. In the children's section, the store now promotes the work of a different illustrator each month.
The 33-year-old Bookloft expanded its customer base two years ago by adding a Web site for hard-to-find and out-of-print books on the Berkshires, BerkshireBooks.com. Some of the books available on the site, and at the Bookloft, are printed at a POD business that the bookstore's owner, Eric Wilska, and Susan Novotny, owner of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, N.Y., started last year, the Troy Book Makers. “It's small, but the business model appears to be working. We have a nice healthy backlog of work,” Wilska said.
For stores on the Cape and the islands, the picture is less rosy. “We're going through a transition here on the Vineyard where we're getting more and more upscale. We're losing our 25-to-35-year-olds and our starter families,” said Jon Nelson Jr., CEO of 32-year-old Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven. Over the past five years his expenses have tripled. As a sixth-generation islander, Nelson wants to support the community, but he questions whether it makes sense to continue to maintain the bookstore when he could convert the building to condos and get two or three times the income.
Bob Hugo, who has been in the book business for 42 years, compared bookselling today to playing a speeded-up version of musical chairs. “Now,” he said, “before you even sit down, they start the music again. There's no rest.” His solution has been to focus his energies on his three Massachusetts stores—Spirit of '76 Bookstore and Cardshop in Marblehead, the Book Rack in Newburyport, and Andover Bookstore—and on controlling inventory. In March, he sold his share of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., and he plans to sell his portion of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H. In addition, Hugo recently added a new, younger partner to manage the Andover store—his son John.