A Bookstore in Davis Square? Dream On

When I first moved in the Davis Square area of Somerville back in 2004, I liked its edginess, I liked the bars, restaurants and shops. But I immediately noticed that something was missing: a bookstore, as in a bookstore selling new books. At that time McIntyre and Moore was in the square, but they are a used-books store. Also something called Buck-A-Book was around. It was selling some books that nobody ever wanted to buy, certainly not for a buck, but mostly it was selling useless stuff that nobody ever wants to buy, except for my grandma or the cat lady next door.

To me that was quite disappointing: I had just moved in the area from Coolidge Corner, where I used to spend time and money at the Brookline Booksmith. The lack of a decent bookstore was also quite surprising: one would think that the area needed and it should be able to sustain a bookstore: the area was full of young professionals, students from Tufts and generally a crowd I would loosely characterize intellectual. I was really missing Booksmith. I loved the book selection there, the atmosphere, the helpful staff and their (usually) great book suggestions (Slight digression: One of their suggestions was Iain Banks’ “The Wasp Factory”, which I bought and read and it still haunts me as the most disturbing book I have ever read). They also had a great selection of discounted books, not just a couple of books, but a sizable amount of titles, both new and old. I could go in there, browse and always end up buying something. Oh yes, and did I mention that they always played awesome music at the perfect volume?!

With Davis Square lacking a bookstore that I liked, I took the T to Harvard Square, and soon Harvard Book Store became the store of preference. Generally I dislike chains, so I avoid Borders, Barnes and Noble, and the idea is that I want to support the independent bookstore. When McIntyre and Moore moved out of the square, I had this idea that I could open a bookstore in that space. I bought a book about opening and operating a bookstore, and my excitement lasted for about a week. I don’t think I’m really the business type, heck, I haven’t even worked at a bookstore. I couldn’t believe that nobody saw how perfect an opportunity it was to open a bookstore in that perfect location. I’m sure reasonable people saw that it was a dying business and pairing that with the extremely high rent of the location (somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 per month), the thought was careless. To me, the most appropriate outcome would have been for the Brookline Booksmith to open another store there. Of course that never happened, as Bowl & Board moved into that space. My hopes and dreams were crushed. Oh, well…

A little time before that, sometime in 2004, when it was announced that an independent bookstore would open in Porter Square, I got excited. Davis to Porter is only a 10-minute walk. What a relief. I had high hopes. I remember the first time I went into the Porter Square Books: everything smelled and felt very new, and the place felt empty, which most likely was the case as the store had just opened. I decided to give the place a chance to grow and visit again later. I visited many times again, but I’m afraid I have to admit that I do not like the place. It just doesn’t feel right. The selection feels extremely limited and after all these years it still feels empty. Whenever I go there to get a specific book, they never have it. I like the bookstore to overwhelm me with books. I want to feel the need to explore all the sections, all the racks. It somehow felt that part of the problem is that the shelves don’t go up high enough. Not only does it feel empty, it also is very loud. Even before the cafe addition, both the staff and the customers tended to talk very loud. Maybe it’s that the emptiness allows the sound to get amplified. And now with the cafe addition the sound of the coffee machines and blenders is painful. I would really love to support this bookstore, but I can’t. The place feels wrong. For me buying is a book is an experience. That’s why I don’t buy books on-line. That’s why I want the bookstore to feel right.

Recently there was a discussion on Davis Square Live Journal (DSLJ) about the prospect of opening a bookstore in the square. The Davis Square Bookstore Project is a community group that “are sharing ideas, connections, and effort to try to bring a bookstore to Davis Square”. I wish them luck, as I still believe that a bookstore would be a great addition to the square. Their post on DSLJ generated about 40 comments, and most of them say, more or less, that Davis does not need one, because the Porter Sq bookstore is close enough and people are generally happy with it, and they do not want another store to cut into their business. There are also comments about the no-future status of the book-business; I would tend to agree with the last one, but at the same time Raven Used Books in Harvard Square is opening a second store on Newbury Street. It may be that the new and used book business are totally different monsters. Still, I am all for success stories.

The proximity argument is a strange one, Davis to Porter is a 10-minute walk, but for people who live towards the other side of the square, towards Tufts, Ball Square, Porter is a 20-30minute walk, and a Davis Square location would definitely be more convenient for those people. Another major problem I see is the extremely high rents: at 255 Elm Street for example commercial space goes for $25-30/sq ft/ year. The old McIntyre and Moore / Bowl & Board location is not available anymore, a new lounge/restaurant is set to open in the Fall. Maybe the empty storefront at the Citizens Bank building would be suitable for a bookstore? I really don’t know. The only bookstore that would be able to afford high rents is a chain, which I object to. The business is tough and think it’s going to be even tougher for a newbie with no prior bookstore experience. I don’t want a bookstore to come, fail and go.

The ideal candidate would be a locally independent store that has been successful and has been around for quite some time. Like, say, Brookline Booksmith.  Brookline Booksmith and Wellesley Booksmith have been very successful, and honestly the idea of a Davis Square Booksmith or a Somerville Booksmith or a Cambridge Booksmith sounds great!

Well, things get strange sometimes: while I was writing this I received an e-mail from Marshall Smith, owner of the Booksmiths, announcing his retirement and looking to sell Wellesley Booksmith. I am afraid opening a new Booksmith, won’t be part of his thoughts in Truro, where he plans to spend his time. I guess my hopes for an independent, successful, amazing Davis Square bookstore are crushed once again. But I can dream on…