Customers Worry As Book Fair Goes On Sale

By Adam Reilly

Nov. 10, 2010

Art books on display at the New England Mobile Book Fair, which is neither mobile or a fair. (Don Coyote/Flickr)

BOSTON — The New England Book Fair isn’t much to look at from the outside. Passing by on Needham Street in Newton Highlands, you might even mistake it for a shuttered business.

Inside, though, the Book Fair is a bibliophile’s dream. The shelves seem to stretch forever, packed with everything from New York Times bestsellers to esoteric, hard-to-find remainders. Most of the books are sold at a 20 percent discount, while New York Times bestsellers get a 30 percent markdown.

Meanwhile, the Book Fair’s organic layout and funky ambience is a far cry from Borders or Barnes & Noble – which is exactly how its loyal customers like it.

There’s “less of the chain feeling” at the Book Fair, says Aimee Stone of Needham. “I like the gritty feeling of this. You’re in with the books.”

Last week, though, the Book Fair’s three co-owners announced that the 53-year-old store – which they call the largest independent bookstore in New England – is up for sale. The goal, says co-owner and COO Steve Gans, is to find a buyer who maintains the store’s character. To that end, they’ve hired broker Paul Siegenthaler, who arranged the recent sale of Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store.

Still, there’s no guarantee that a new owner will safeguard the Book Fair’s more pronounced idiosyncrasies, which include a huge discount-books inventory, an armada of miniature shopping carts and shelves arranged by publisher rather than author.

“I absolutely would not want it to modernize,” says Carrie Schmidt of Jamaica Plain. “I love the shopping carts! I love the way that the stacks are set up.”

The store’s logic can be confusing for the uninitiated. Some authors get their own turnstile; others don’t. What’s more, you’ll find foreign-language titles sharing a small space with chewable baby books and the latest offering from Dennis Lehane. But loyalists claim the unusual layout creates an appealingly serendipitous shopping experience.

“There’s a stack of books that I just walked by – these little books that I had when I was growing up, and I’ve never seen them again,” says Schmidt. “I would have had to go online to even remember that those books existed and that I wanted them — and there they are!”

Regular customers also lavish praise on the Book Fair’s staffers, who they claim are a cut above their big-box peers.

“People here seem to be much more knowledgeable,” says Rama Chandra of Newton. “They’ve been around here a long time.”

So has the Book Fair, which was founded in 1957 by Lou Strymish, a Harvard-trained chemist. (Today, Strymish’s sons Jon and David own the store with Gans.) But whether the store’s unusual character can survive another half-century remains to be seen.

“If you like it the way it is, and if somebody else could just take it and change it,” says Stone, “then it’s not the New England Mobile Book Fair anymore.”

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