Earlier this summer, 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. (See part one, part two, part three and part four.)
Located on a leafy section of Route 6A on Cape Cod, Titcomb's Bookshop in East Sandwich in some ways stood in contrast to most of the other stores Steve and I visited: it has been owned by the Titcomb family since it was founded in 1969 and is in the same location, which has been little changed since 1989, when two of the eight Titcomb children--Paul and Ted--"built all but the foundation" of the bookstore wing, said Vicki Titcomb, Paul and Ted's sister and now manager of the store.
Still, the store has changed over time. In the beginning, it specialized in used and rare titles but now sells new books as well. In an indication of their relative importance, new books are on main floor while used are in the barn-like upstairs. Toys, which are in the basement, represent 25% of the business. Children's is also a strong category.
When Steve and I stopped in, the store was bustling, and the family emphasis was obvious. Ralph and Nancy Titcomb, who founded the store, were there, working along with Vicki and one of her nieces. Including Vicki's grandmother, Edna Ericksen, who worked at Titcomb's into her 90s, four generations of the family have been involved in the store.
Customers who might as well have been family lingered, and the main floor had more the feel of a country general store than a bookstore. Even from the road, the store oozes cozy and family: the store is a wing of a comfortable older home that was built in 1790. There's also the welcoming--and famous--"iron man," a full-sized sculpture created in 1974 by Ted Titcomb, one of Vicki's brothers, while in college. The colonial figure is repainted every other year and is a landmark on Route 6A. (When "Ben" was run over by a motorist in 2010, Ted repaired him, much to the relief of locals.) It's also where the store takes pictures of visiting authors.
Titcomb's offers plenty of events, some of which are held at the Sandwich Public Library, with which the store sponsors Sandwich Reads Together. Titcomb's also has done some unusual promotions. This summer, for example, the store is "the sole source of signed Lemony Snicket books." The titles included are The Dark, File Under: 13 Suspicious Events and, from his All the Wrong Questions series, Who Could That Be at This Hour? and When Did You See Her Last? In addition, signed copies of Shouldn't You Be in School?, which will be published in September, are available for preordering. (All the titles are from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, a Hachette imprint.) Readers can order signature-only or personally inscribed books from the bookshop or its website for later pick-up or delivery.
Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler, who is spending much of the summer on Cape Cod, explained: "At a time when certain corporate booksellers are locking horns and wounding authors, it is swell to align myself this summer with Titcomb's, who have always been nice when I stop by unexpectedly, demand obscure poetry volumes, and use the bathroom without asking."
Vicky Titcomb commented: "We were thrilled to hear that Mr. Snicket made this offer to sign books while he is here on Cape Cod and we are very grateful for this opportunity. We also understand that he will be serving margaritas when we visit him with books to be signed, so everyone on staff is most anxious to help out." She noted that the store is "proud to offer Hachette books. If they aren't in stock now, we can usually have them in just a few days."
Our next stop, Eight Cousins Bookstore, in Falmouth, also on Cape Cod, is, like Titcomb's Bookshop, well-known for a metal sculpture in front of the store. In Eight Cousins' case, it's an oversized bronze chair, called the Alphabet Chair or Alphabet Throne, which was installed in 2003. It's big enough, said longtime owner Carol Chittenden, that "an adult feels a little childlike in it and a parent and child can read in it." The chair has become a favorite place for photo ops with visiting authors.
Unlike Titcomb's--and more like the other stores we visited--Eight Cousins is making a major change. Carol, who founded Eight Cousins in 1986 with her mother, Betty Borg, has sold the store, effective this coming January, to three local women: Sara M. Hines, who manages the store's digital media, programming and on-site events; Mary Fran Buckley, who has worked at the store in a variety of areas, including finance, book clubs and adult fiction buying; and Eileen Miskell, who has a background in business management and serves on the board of Independent Bank, parent of Rockland Trust, and the Cape Cod Foundation. She is also co-owner, with her husband, of Wood Lumber Company in Falmouth.
Carol, who is as enthusiastic and full of energy as ever, proudly showed us around Eight Cousin's location on Main Street, where the store has been located for 22 years. The biggest change for her came after the closing in recent years of several general indies in the Falmouth area: once a children's-only store, Eight Cousins has added a full range of adult titles, many of which are in the front of the store.
The addition of adult titles has given the store the feeling of life aboard a ship, with books tucked into every corner. A one-time closet was made into a gift wrapping "kiosk," and dumps have been added to some of the aisles. "We're constantly scheming for ways to get more space," Carol said.
The store sells "tons of cards," and when we had arrived, it had begun emphasizing summer reading, in this case with a "mysteries light and dark" display and a summer-themed window display. "This is very, very important," Carol said.
It's hard to imagine Carol slowing down. She's been a dynamo and made a big impression on the industry. She's a co-founder of the New England Children's Booksellers Advisory Council, part of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, and her store has won many accolades. In 2002, Eight Cousins won the Women's National Book Association's Pannell Award, and in 2009 and 2014, Eight Cousins was cited by Yankee magazine as the Best Children's Bookstore in New England.
Still, Carol says that after she hands over the keys to the new owners at the end of the year, she plans to take January and February off. "I've always said I wanted to cut back to 35-40 hours a week from the 70 I've always done," she said, adding that although she's sad to give up the store, she's happy about the new owners. "It's like my baby has grown up and is going off to the best college," she said.
Carol, we'll miss you.