“Look how big it is… and it’s not a DVD store. And it’s not an Apple store!” That was Ken Calhoun, a writer and professor at nearby Lasalle College, remarking over the spacious new digs of Newtonville Books, which had its grand opening last Thursday night in Newton Centre (the name will stay the same).
The Boston literati came out in droves for the event, packing themselves into every nook and cranny of the new store on Langley Road. The shop boasts a number of charming physical details, like a kid’s room with pillows in the corner (a rack of stuffed animals from Eric Carle books stands nearby), wheels on all the shelves so they can be moved aside for readings, and a rustic stone wall behind the cash registers. The counter below the registers contains a veritable art installation: hundreds of hardcover books stacked up with the spines hidden.
The co-owners are husband and wife Jaime Clarke and Mary Cotton, who transplanted the store to Newton Centre after they lost their lease on the old property in December. Clarke figures that getting the boot may have been a blessing in disguise. “Newtonville is kind of sleepy. You need a car to get around,” he said. “But now we’re right off the train [the Newton Center T stop is a two-minute walk away] so we can get college students and local writers. It’s easy for anyone to pop in here.”
For a small shop to thrive, author and surgeon Atul Gawande reasons, you must get spontaneous walk-ins. “Brookline Booksmith has done well for that very reason,” he said. “People go see a movie and then they head into the bookstore. It becomes part of the night out.” Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers, also likes the idea of building an evening around the bookstore. “That was the genius of the store from the beginning,” he said, “it brought writers together, and then everyone goes out for drinks.”
Boston’s lit nerds are of a different ilk from New York’s—more Timberland boots and North Face fleeces, fewer skinny jeans and less snark—and they have a different set of local heroes. In lieu of Brooklyn’s Lethem, Foer and Whitehead, Beantown has the likes of Gawande, Perrotta, Anita Diamant, Elizabeth Searle, and Andre Dubus III, the first four of which were all in the house. Gawande says many met through Newtonville Books: “I’m on staff at the New Yorker now and I still never meet other authors, which is ridiculous,” he said. “But through this place, I’ve met Tom [Perrotta], Sebastian Junger, Anita Diamant…”
The list goes on, and an equally impressive list peppers the store’s events calendar. Tuesday the shop will host Rick Moody. In two weeks, the book club will discuss So Long, See You Tomorrow, with Ann Hood as host. The co-owner couple has a strong network of writerly pals, most of them involved in Grub Street (Perrotta is on the board). Michael Borum, a writer and web manager for OxFam, said, “These owners have so much energy, and they’re totally tied in to the scene.” It doesn’t hurt, either, that Clarke is a co-founder, and current editor, of the local literary magazine Post Road.
Are a strong community and buzzy events enough for a small bookstore to thrive? Clarke thinks so: “It’s not as hard to do this in a place like Newton where people love books and have disposable income.” Still, the specter of Jeff Bezos looms overhead. “Amazon has taught people to look for the lowest price they can possibly get, which is totally fair,” said Cotton. “But you do see people making a list or checking prices on their phones, and it breaks your heart. We aren’t a showroom. But I will say that in this area, it’s pretty rare.”
The store’s quirks should help distinguish it from competitors within driving distance, like Newtonville Books or Trident Booksellers on Newbury Street. Sure, the featured tables display the same hot titles you’d expect—The Art of Fielding, Open City—but there’s also a tall, skinny shelf of lit magazines, with the latest editions of Noon, Agni, A Public Space, and even old back issues of Granta. Then, an idea so cute it almost seems lifted out of a Wes Anderson movie: in the front corner, a large DVD case contains only movies that are based on books, from A Beautiful Mind to High Fidelity. 5-night rentals are $3.99 each. Taken in full, the space has a unique presentation that will appeal to literary aesthetes as much as do the tiny green stickers on books at SoHo’s McNally Jackson, possibly the best indie bookstore date spot in New York.
One customer on Thursday could be overheard saying, “I’m going to live in this place.” Another woman picked up a paperback copy of Nathan Englander’s early novel The Ministry of Special Cases and remarked to a friend, “This is the young man who wrote that new Haggadah!” (“It was just written up in The Globe”; “Isn’t his new book that Anne Frank one?”; etc., etc., welcome to Newton.)
It was an exciting evening, but still, there are bound to be doubters. George Gerard, who lives in the area, doesn’t see how the store could do well in the long run. “Any avid reader over 45 goes to the library,” he reasoned, and as for events, “who’s to stop people from coming, and then still buying the books on Amazon?”
Not so fast, says Holly LeCraw, author of The Swimming Pool. She predicts the store will thrive thanks to magical timing. “The Boston book community has always been strong but right now it’s really flowering, with Grub Street and the Boston Books Festival,” she said. “Newton is lousy with writers, so the store has a built-in cheering squad that absolutely wants them to survive.” As summer beach-reading rolls around, and eventually Christmas, LeCraw and others will cheer vociferously, with their patronage.