Newtonville Books: An Indie Determined to Succeed

After a little winter hiatus, our “Independent Booksellers That Rock Our World” interview series is back at full force. This month we were graciously accommodated by independent booksellers Jaime Clarke and Mary Cotton of Newtonville Books in Newton, MA. After having saved the store from shutting its doors back in 2007, the two writers have worked tirelessly to make it a hub of creativity and camaraderie, hosting book clubs, movie rentals, writing workshops…you get the picture: these are absolutely some hardworking, community-focused, literarily driven, world-rocking indie booksellers.

Atticus Books: 2011 marks the last year of your current lease at the Newtonville Books location. In a move that has garnered some attention from industry pulse-keepers, you all have asked your local community to step up and show you how invested they are in keeping you around. Can you tell us about this initiative?

Jaime Clarke: Simply that the future of books and bookstores is constantly being debated–I’m old enough to remember when audio books were going to be the end of printed books–and Borders’s recent bankruptcy woes have brought a timbre to the conversation we haven’t heard in awhile. That plus the expiration of our lease next year made us want to search out how much our community values an independent bookstore and, more directly, if they’re willing to underwrite its existence with memberships. The margins in bookselling are notoriously slim, and our wonderful customers are always telling us how much they sincerely appreciate our being on the block, but there’s a real dollar price to having an independent bookstore in your neighborhood and the question is this: are you willing to pay it?

AB: This explicit petition to the community to come forward and actively support the independent bookstores we all claim to want to keep around is becoming more and more popular as seen by the efforts of places like Buffalo Street Books and Reading Frenzy. Why do you think that is?

JC: At a certain point, readers have to be called to account. It’s fine to say you support independent bookselling, but if you’re grabbing books off the shelves at Target and Walmart and Costco, or browsing bookstores and then running home to order them on Amazon, you don’t really support independent bookselling. And those of us in the independent bookstore business have watched while store after store in various communities closes and the patrons are always shocked, when the answer is really more obvious than anyone wants to admit. So for us it was a way to remind our community that they hold all the power when it comes to whether or not their neighborhood has an independent bookstore. If they want us to stay, we need them to shop here.

AB: In your online letter to the community, you make the point that as an independent bookstore, you are “constantly trying to evolve to meet the community’s needs.” What are some past examples of this kind of evolution and what changes do you see as necessary for the future?

JC: We’ve added writing workshops, bookclubs (including our Celebrity Bookclub, led by local authors), memberships, rentable DVDs of films based on books, as well as some programming that didn’t work like Summer Camp Care Packages, Paperback reader clubs, children’s storytime, etc. The evolution includes contractions, too: the previous owner enlarged the store by half to add a giant children’s section, but when the community didn’t shop there enough to warrant our carrying that much kids’ stuff, we turned it into a used book room, which the community seems to like more.

AB: You also point out that “if Amazon’s local customers would buy every third book at Newtonville Books, your neighborhood bookstore would be thriving beyond wildest expectations.” With so much love and support for indies being expressed by booklovers, what do you think accounts for this apparent reluctance to voice this support with their consumer decisions?

JC: The easiest answer, especially in light of recent history, is money. It’s easy to understand the impulse to want a book for 20-40% off, shipped free to your home or office, sometimes the next day. No denying it. But when a booklover pulls the trigger on this purchase, they’re voting against having an independent bookstore in their neighborhood and the kinds of literary programming that indies bring to their block. (Exempt obviously are those who don’t live anywhere near an independent bookstore. I have a friend who lives in the woods of Minnesota who relies on Amazon, though the effect on Minnesota’s fiscal problems is probably exacerbated by said purchase since Amazon doesn’t collect sales tax on that purchase, but that’s another conversation). We’re hoping to make people more aware of what they’re doing with their dollars.

AB: With Borders declaring bankruptcy and closing so many of its doors, there seem to be mixed reactions going around amongst indie booksellers. Do you see these changes as reason for rejoicing, or is it a bad sign for bookselling in general?

JC: A bookstore closing, regardless of size, is a bad sign, no doubt. It makes publishers very nervous when a bookstore the size of Borders falters. And writers, especially midlist fiction writers, many of whom we love and promote like family, will ultimately suffer the consequences in the form of reduced advances, printings, etc. –if they can manage to find a book deal at all.

AB: Part of what makes Newtonville Books much more than a place to buy books is the writing programs you regularly host. Can you tell us about your workshops and the kind of success you’ve had with them?

JC: There are two distinct workshops at the bookstore: the workshops hosted by Grub Street, an independent writing community in Boston, which we host, and our own writing workshop, which is really a laboratory for first ideas. Our workshop is twenty bucks and meets one Saturday a month. It’s easy to sit in on, with no pressure to be working on a novel or story or anything of length. We think readers who harbor the writing bug like it as a way to test their creative suspicions.

AB: Obviously, the folks at Newtonville put serious and concerted effort into fostering your bookshop’s relationship with the community’s writers. In an ideal world, how would this relationship work; In other words, how should independent bookstores and local writers be working to help each other out?

JC: We’re lucky we live in a city like Boston, which has a plethora of terrific writers, and we’re doubly lucky at Newtonville to count them among our friends. (Some even attended our wedding!) Writers are always answering the call from us, be it to host our Celebrity Bookclub, or to pair up with a lesser-known writer at a reading, or by answering our Questionnaire, which we use to promote them and their work. My wife and I come from the world of literary magazines, having both worked for Post Road, and so we greatly value the conversational flow with writers. A writer lending his or her name and/or time to a local independent bookstore gives that bookstore cultural relevance in the neighborhood, ultimately. And we love hand-selling books by local authors and bringing their work to our customers, who think it’s cool to read a book written by someone they might bump into at the grocery store.

AB: While you focus primarily on new books, the store also maintains a Used Book Annex. What was the motivation for including this consignment aspect in Newtonville Books? Any particular challenges it brings along with it?

JC: As mentioned above, we needed a use for this space previously occupied by the kids’ section. And customers had been asking us about carrying used books for years. But it introduces a whole new set of challenges for the administration of the store, i.e., a buying program, how books will be entered into the computerized inventory, etc., so we held off until we could really do it right. Our other reluctance was the notion that writers don’t get royalties from the resale of their books, and as I said previously, we care very much about writers; but happily most writers are thrilled to have their books passed from hand to hand, and don’t mind a local, independent bookstore pocketing a few coins in the transaction.

AB: Aside from new and used books, Newtonville Books also offers a “Books on Film” Rental program. How does this program work and how popular is it?

JC: Members can take out DVDs any time they want, for free. Otherwise it’s $3.99 for 5 days but only 99 cents if you buy the book it’s based on. People respond to the display in the store, and it invariably starts conversations that begin with, “I didn’t know this was based on a book…” Which is why we started it, really. It’s most popular in foul weather, for obvious reasons, and members like to take advantage of the free rentals!

AB: Speaking of movies based on books, what would be your top three?

JC: Only three? Very hard.
Up in the Air
Election and Little Children
House of Sand and Fog
See how hard it was to keep it to three?

AB: And, finally, if Jaime Clarke and Mary Cotton were not owning and running an independent bookstore, what would they be doing?

JC: Living in Hollywood, pitching bad script ideas to television executives in sunlit conference rooms.

Photo Sources:
American Booksellers Association
Newtonville Books

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