Last month, Shelf Awareness editor-in-chief John Mutter went on a whirlwind bookstore tour in Massachusetts with New England Independent Booksellers Association executive director Steve Fischer. The two visited 10 stores in 48 hours, setting a frantic pace, but it was wonderful to see so many booksellers, to catch up with some stores and see "new" ones and to talk shop with booksellers.
An unintended theme of the trip had to do with ownership succession. A majority of the stores have changed hands in recent years, and one is in the process of being sold. Changeovers can be wrenching for longtime owners who are attached to their way of doing things, but in these cases, it seemed that the transitions have gone well. At several of the stores, new owners from outside the book world have relied on established staff members for help, while new owners with bookselling experience are putting their mark on stores while maintaining the qualities that made the store an attractive purchase in the first place.
Anyway, on with the tour, which began on a bright, sunny day that made New England rival Southern California for balmy breezes and refreshingly dry air. It's enough to make you want to move north, at least until about November or December.
After a speedy Acela trip to the grim Route 128 station, I was picked up by Steve, who set up the tour and is, as always, an entertaining and informative guide. We immediately headed to Wellesley, a beautiful and wealthy Boston suburb that's home to Wellesley College--and Wellesley Books.
The store was bought in 2010 by Gillian and Bill Kohli from Marshall Smith, the bookseller entrepreneur extraordinaire who founded, among other ventures, the Booksmith chain. (As Wellesley Booksmith, the store opened in 1999 in an old Lauriat's space. Smith is still part owner of Brookline Booksmith in nearby Brookline. More on that store below.) Gillian Kohli has a background in engineering and law and is president of Wellesley Books. Bill Kohli is a portfolio manager at Putnam Investments.
Manager Jeremy Solomons, who started at Wellesley Books at the beginning of the year, showed us around the store. Jeremy is thoughtful, entertaining, English, has a background in theater and literature and has bookstore experience from working holiday seasons at Changing Hands, Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., where his sister- and brother-in-law, Gayle Shanks and Bob Sommer, are owners. (In a bit of serendipity, Gayle recommended last winter that Jeremy have coffee with Steve to sound him out about possible bookstore jobs in New England. At the time, Steve didn't know of any, but right afterward, he heard about the position open at Wellesley Books--and the rest is history.)
Under the Kohlis, Wellesley Books has undergone a pleasant facelift. A striking change involved the space above the bookcases around the walls of the store, which now features rolling hills set apart from the wall with outlines of a skyline on the wall and figures walking and reading. (See photo.) The dead space wasn't large enough for posters, and the store wanted to forgo using it as storage. Another "innovation": Solomons had the many random dead tubes in the overhead light fixtures replaced with working ones, which brightened the store considerably. Sometimes it pays simply to look up.
Befitting a wealthy suburb, the store sells "lots of fiction and hardcovers," Solomons said, and it's renowned for its high level of customer service and friendly, knowledgeable staff, many of whom have worked at the store for years. At lunchtime on a weekday, the store was busy, and many of the customers and staff seemed to know each other by name, adding to the home-away-from-home feel of this store.
Wellesley Books has a strong events program. Events are held in downstairs space (where remainders and some used books are located) or in local middle schools. In late May, "Cassandra Clare in conversation with Jodi Picoult" drew 300 people, and in February an appearance by friends and family of the late Esther Earl, whose memoir is This Star Won't Go Out, drew 400. Downstairs, the store features used books and a few remainders.
Another striking program at Wellesley Books is the men's book club run by co-owner Bill Kohli, which seems to have discovered the magic both for getting men to read fiction and to join a book club. Called Bill's Book Club for Guys, the club regularly draws 20-30 men and costs $25, which includes a copy of the book and "libations": beer, wine or single malt whiskey. The club has discussed, among other titles, A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, Headlong by Michael Frayn and, not surprisingly, Hemingway's Nick Adams Stories. The September meeting's pick is The Son by Philipp Meyer.
From Wellesley, we headed to nearby Brookline, which is also a well-to-do Boston suburb but has a more urban feel. Founded in 1961, Brookline Booksmith is famous for constantly re-inventing itself--and that tradition has continued, which was apparent as soon as we entered the store. Our guide was longtime manager and co-owner Dana Brigham, one of the smartest, funny and unassuming booksellers I know. (Nine years ago, Dana wrote to me immediately after my abrupt departure from Publishers Weekly, encouraging me to do another daily e-mail newsletter for booksellers. It was an important nudge leading to the creation of Shelf Awareness, and I'm eternally grateful for her e-mail.)
Dana pointed out how the front of the store had been rearranged to feature the Kitchen Table, where, as Dana put, Brookline Booksmith "goes with our winners," a lesson, she said, often repeated by Marshall Smith. The Kitchen Table includes all kinds of food books and cookbooks as well as related sidelines like colorful potholders and dishes. The Kitchen Table nicely fills what Dana called "an odd-sized square" in the front of the store.
Brookline Booksmith also goes with its book winners. In a display near the front of the store, it features the previous year's top 25 bestsellers. Some of these books have done so well that they've become perennial bestsellers--because of the display. Managing Oneself by Peter F. Drucker has been a store bestseller four years in a row, and, "We've sold more of it than any other store," Dana said. You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment by Thich Nhat Hanh has been a store bestseller for five years. Among other strong titles are How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish and 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story by Dan Harris.
Gifts account for 24% of sales. Besides the food-related items, they include journals, puzzles, cards, notecards, maps (in the kiosk descended from the Globe Corner Bookstore) and much more. Art supplies are doing well, and Dana pointed in particular to The Mandala Coloring Book as a bestseller in this area. The sidelines piece de resistance is the Card & Gift Room, the beautifully renovated space partway down the main part of the store on the left that sells mugs, magnets, frames, scarves, glassware, candles and more. (While there are plenty of sidelines in the store, there are only sidelines in the Card & Gift Room.) "We're making an effort to be a one-stop shopping store, and we really mean it," Dana added.
| Steve Fischer and Dana Brigham
Despite the plethora of sidelines, Dana emphasized that the store continues to have the same number of titles and the same amount of shelf space for books that it's always had.
Brookline Booksmith has also revamped its children's section, making it more of a "store within the store." The staff includes three booksellers dedicated to children's books, which Dana said is essential because "general booksellers can't do as well with children's books."
She also noted an unusual hire in June: Tim Huggins, founder of Newtonville Books, Newton, Mass., which he sold in 2007, has joined Brookline Booksmith as controller and treasurer.