Interview with a Bookstore: Newtonville Books
If You Fall in Love in a Bookstore, You Should Probably Buy It
The first thing I noticed about the bookstore was the ladders. They were things of a bookish girl’s fantasy—the wooden ladders that slide along tall bookshelves and proudly and creakily announce that there are so many books here, you couldn’t possibly keep your feet on the ground and see them all. No, you need to climb. The owner was the first person I saw in this beautiful space, a cross between Belle from Beauty and the Beast’s personal, humble library and the Beast’s grand, soaring one. He was shelving books in the History section. A girl behind the counter stopped to ask if I needed help.
Four years or so after that day, my husband—who walked in that same door while I was standing behind the counter, working, and who did a double take at the sight of me and still hasn’t quite stopped looking at me like that—and I bought the store from Tim after he told us he’d be closing it, burned out after eight years and a stumbling economy. We couldn’t let it close. We worked there for five years before losing our lease and moving to a new space in an old church with a better location and tons of charm and an airy atrium-like foyer, but very sadly, only an average-ceilinged space to house the majority of our beloved bookshelves, the tallest ones dismantled and reused in new formations. The towering, endless bookshelves would be no longer.
When we put together the new space, including a front counter made out of used and remaindered books, I was sleep-deprived and bereft at the loss of our ladders—our wooden step stools, still aesthetically pleasing but not quite as dramatic, were all we needed.
But we asked our carpenter, who we considered a magician, what he could do. He shaved off the tips of one ladder so that it wouldn’t scrape the ceiling, and installed one of the chrome ladder rails near the top of the wall of bookshelves that became the Fiction section. Sometimes when I hear the creaking, clinking sound of a customer climbing it, I remember that feeling of stepping into the store for the first time and seeing the endless world of books in front of me. It’s still there, just a little shorter. And the other ladder lies in our attic, waiting. Just in case.
–Mary Cotton, Owner, Newtonville Books
What’s your favorite section in the store?
This is a trick question, kin to asking “Which is your favorite child?” (thankfully, we only have one) or, worse, “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” (Black raspberry and butter crunch, don’t make me choose.) So I will start by dancing around it. Every section has an alluring promise to me—even our Education section, which is mostly test prep books, makes me think “Do I still have time to take the GMAT? I could totally still become a…whatever that’s for.” Ditto with the travel section, and the travel writing section—so many places I could go, places just waiting for me to read about. History, American and World, and our small but appealing History of Things: I am quite sure all the answers exist in those thick books somewhere. Poetry, with its slim volumes and teasing titles. If only I had hours/days/weeks snowbound in the store. Picture books, since having my son, have become increasingly magical. I love the ones whose gorgeous illustrations appeal to us both. And Art! Although our section is small, there is so much beauty there. It soothes me to walk by and see our copy of Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series. The Cooking section, full of delicious things that I will never make but enjoy looking at. We recently separated our New York Review Books Classics and our Europa Editions into their own sections up front (inspired by Book Court) and I love the uniform look of their spines. They really belong together, and I’d like to read them all. (Thankfully, many of the NYRB books are short, so I read them often.)
But the real answer is Fiction. It’s always been Fiction. I’m proud of our backlist (this is something only a bookstore owner would ever say), and I like seeing older titles next to brand new ones, the Deluxe Penguin editions of Jane Austen next to Dover ones. Because I do the ordering, I have a good grasp of what titles are on the shelves, but sometimes I’ll stumble across something unfamiliar and I have to pause and check it out. It’s our biggest and most popular section, and contains multitudes.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
“Infinite space” is so suggestive. I would start with a cafe where one could order coffee, wine, or toasted everything bagel sandwiches with hummus and lettuce and tomatoes and pickles, and where we could have Book Lovers’ Trivial Pursuit evenings. Then I would add a giant oak tree to our children’s section where children could gather around for story time and climb into the branches with a book to read on their own. Then I would add a second floor with a giant stairway leading up to it, and a movie screen that could be pulled down from the ceiling and people could gather around to watch films based on books, maybe with some actual old rows of theater chairs like the one they have at BookCourt (again). An enormous art section (see previous answer) where coffee table art books could have sample copies lying open on dark wood tables for customers to flip through, and shrink-wrapped copies on the shelves so someone could buy a copy in pristine condition. Worn leather chairs that you could sink into. Books in other languages. Every single time I go into a bookstore, I find something that makes me think “Oh, I wish we could do that!” so this allegedly “infinite space” would get filled quickly.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
The handwriting on our Events chalkboard (mine) is pretty first-rate.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Once we had a celebrated writer read with a first-time novelist—we often pair our authors, as it’s more interesting that way and more likely that people will show up. At the signing table after the reading, the first time novelist starting ranting, to the family members of his waiting patiently in line for a signed book, about how expensive hard copies of books were and why on earth would anyone actually want to buy one? The other writer and I stared at each other in disbelief before I casually removed his unsigned books from the table and put them on the returns shelf in back. He didn’t notice.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
I grew up in the suburbs outside Buffalo, NY, and there was no independent bookstore nearby. (I didn’t visit the lovely Talking Leaves, in the city, until I was much older.) So, as a child, visiting the bookstore meant going to the Waldenbooks at the Eastern Hills Mall. It was still incredible to me. Those were the days when I read books that were part of a series, and there would be entire shelves of numbered volumes in front of me. Nancy Drew, The Baby-sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, and countless other books. I’d be thrilled to get a new one, its pages perfectly flat, and couldn’t wait to crack it open. I don’t remember my mother ever letting us leave the store without a book. Later, my high school boyfriend and I would take pilgrimages to the new Borders (it was a great Borders in those days—the fiction section had everything! Every Vonnegut novel, not just Slaughter-house Five and Cat’s Cradle) and later to this tiny used bookstore in the first floor of a house that seemed to only exist for two summers but where we found countless yellowed classics that cost a few dollars each.
If you weren’t running/working at a bookstore what would you be doing?
If I weren’t running a bookstore, I would be working at one, and if I weren’t working at one, I would be some lucky bookstore’s absolute best customer ever, coming by every evening after I got off the train from whatever job my GMAT prep book prepared me for, just to see what new books came in that day. As long as I had a train commute for reading, and as long as I still got to talk to people around books, even if from the other side of the counter, I think I’d be ok.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
How hard it is to say goodbye to booksellers when they inevitably move on to other things—school, or jobs that pay real money. A bookstore job requires a level of intelligence and experience that is not reflected in the hourly wage, and so we tend to be a sort of way station where we are graced with brilliant employees who will eventually have to leave us. I knew that from working at a bookstore—people and personalities come and go—but I didn’t realize how hard it was as an employer. It breaks my heart every time an employee has to move on. I wish I could shower them with the financial incentives their brilliance and enthusiasm merit.
SLIDESHOW: Staff recommendations, Newtonville Books