Interview with a Bookstore: Porter Square Books
Your Clear Winner of the "Craziest Regulars" Award
Porter Square Books was opened in 2004 by a number of enthusiastic, experienced and knowledgeable booksellers. Armed with a business plan, and a desire to be in a stimulating and diverse community of readers, they settled on the wonderfully bookish Porter Square in Cambridge, MA. To their delight, they were embraced by their new neighborhood. To this day they remain fiercely independent while adapting to the changing bookselling environment.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
Chris (bookseller): The YA and Middle Grade sections, if there’s still room to shelve more books. Any other section if there’s not.
Jennifer (bookseller, gifts buyer, displays): Thrills and Chills. Adventure writing always puts things in perspective.
Robert (bookseller, receiver): Poetry.
Josh (bookseller and marketing director): I probably read more fiction than anything else, but I also spend plenty of time in poetry and belles lettres, always gravitating towards books that are a little out there.
David (co-owner): It’s a tie between General World History and Books on Language.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Josh and Marie (bookseller emeritus): A section devoted to translation. It’s been well documented that Americans don’t read much in translation and the easiest way for a bookstore to help bridge that gap is a devoted section.
Chris: An author zoo: Writers of different genres kept in humane enclosures where they can write and drink coffee all day while tourists poke contracts at them through the bars and yell things like, “How many books have you sold?” and “Where’s your platform?”
Jennifer: As the gift buyer and merchandiser, I’d have to say more display tables! Themed displays sell very well here, and it’s so much fun creating them.
Robert: I’d expand the myth and folklore section 1000 percent.
Carol (founder, children’s buyer): A corner office with windows, couch, and bookshelves galore.
David: Literary Criticism; more books in Spanish than we have now, as well as books in French or possibly other languages (which we don’t have now).
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Chris: Hire published and soon-to-be-published writers. (Right now, we’ve got five on staff.) Also, promote Ulysses. [Ed. note: like this guy.]
Josh: I think we encourage conversation very well, both online in social media and in the store. We always take the time to talk to our customers and get to know them as people and readers.
Susannah (bookseller): I think Porter Square Books provides service way beyond our remit of book selling. We call taxis, research adult ed. classes, mail out lost items, follow up on research from home, look after lost dogs (I can recall the caterer’s Rottweiler coming here on his own)—and that’s just this week! Our customers feel part of a community that has books as its base.
David: Provide a place for middle grade and YA readers to discover the next book they “have to” read. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing an eighth-grader deeply involved with one of our booksellers discussing the merits of the second vs. the third book in a particular fantasy trilogy, or two kids debating which is the best John Green novel, or just sitting on the floor reading, back up against the bookshelves and oblivious to all around them.
Who’s your weirdest regular?
Marie: The most notable regular is the Polish gentleman who grew up in a house whose dining room sat 40 people. He talks with a somewhat thick accent, but tells fascinating stories from WWII-era Poland.
Josh: I don’t know how weird this is but there’s one customer who comes in a few times a week, eats a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream, while idly flipping through something, and occasionally buys Wooden Boat Magazine. I guess we all need our systems.
Carol: Gary Cowan.
David: We have one customer who almost always buys just a New York Times, pays for it with a credit card and wants it in a plastic bag.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Josh: One time at closing, someone wouldn’t leave. She was sitting quietly in the corner reading and explained to me that she wanted me to call the police and that if I didn’t she would start breaking things. So I called the police and we both kind of waited around for them to show. The real awkward icing on top of this strange cake was pretty much right when a police officer showed up and started talking to her, someone else who was closing started blasting their heavy metal closing music.
Susannah: There was the man who dropped trow when we didn’t have Kierkegaard in the store the second week after opening. My other personal favorite was the well dressed and coiffed lady who thought a Chinese man was following her. He turned out to be totally a figment of her imagination but she had me and a security person looking everywhere for him before we realized she was a bit “off”!
Marie: The craziest thing I had to deal with was the day a guy tried to pass me his kid’s dirty diaper across the register.
Chris: Helping an elderly gentleman get his pants back on after he used the restroom. Or explaining to a customer several times that no, Amazon had NOT shipped her books to us.
Robert: A customer once had me go through a stack of books that had an award sticker, while 10+ people waited in line. Then said they didn’t want to buy one. I asked why. They said. The stickers were not on straight.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Jennifer: I still can’t believe this, but we had this cozy, incredibly beautiful bookstore in the non-literary, coastal Texas town I grew up in. While my mom browsed, I would read for hours in a plum velvet chair, with classical music softly playing.
Susannah: My first memory of a bookshop was going to spend a book token I had been given at maybe 4 years old. It was a beautiful old 2 storey shop with tall shelves and sliding ladders on the walls. After much deliberation I bought The Tale of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter and still have it today. Unfortunately the bookshop was demolished in the horrendous 1970s modernization of the town centre which was a huge loss – now there is an indoor mall and one chain bookstore with no charm and 3 for 2 stickers on everything.
Carol: Looking longingly at the Nancy Drew hard covers and knowing I would maybe get one for Christmas.
If you weren’t running/working at a bookstore what would you be doing?
Chris: Staring wistfully through the window.
SLIDESHOW: Porter Square Books Staff Recommendations