Interview with a Bookstore: Trident Booksellers & Cafe
how many books are needed to open a bookstore?
The Trident first opened in 1984. At the time this end of Newbury Street (a popular shopping street in Boston), was pretty grungy and undesirable. It was opened by Gail and Bernie Flynn (my parents). I think they’d say they opened the bookstore as an effort to find a way of supporting themselves after my brother was born in 1983. My dad had previously opened a bookstore in St. Johnsbury, Vermont called Northern Lights, which is no longer there.
–Bernie Flynn (Owner)
What's your favorite section of the store?
Courtney Flynn (Manager): I have to say the fiction section. It’s the place where all my favorites are.
Clarissa Hadge (Assistant Bookstore Manager): My favorite section in the store is the children’s section, partly because that’s my specialty, and partly because I have such fond memories of bookstores as a child. Every time I go into the children’s section, I feel a sense of bliss! This is true for any bookstore; but I also have a sense of accomplishment and pride for what I’ve managed to do with the space in the children’s section.
Bernie: After 40 years of bookselling it’s hard to choose a favorite section, my interests have changed over time. At first it was the Buddhism Section where I tried to stock every book available until the 1990s when the number of titles became unwieldy. Then I was fascinated with the Poetry Section. I would sit up at night and read poetry and listen to Jazz with a glass of wine. Recently I’ve been putting a lot of energy into the Blank Book section. For some reason it’s become one of the bestselling sections in the store! Go figure.
If you had infinite space, what would you add?
Courtney: More of everything! Space is always, always in issue. Since we’re in a high rent neighborhood, every square inch counts. That leaves no room for luxuries like office space, receiving rooms, and storage. I’d also like more room for table displays. Our store is long and narrow, leaving little room for any big tables. I get jealous when I walk into bookstores that have big open floors with lots of tables to stack books and get creative about themes for displays.
Clarissa: I would absolutely expand the children’s section, to make room for more books and other related sideline items. I would also expand the other specialty sections–sci-fi/fantasy and mystery, and pull romance out from the general fiction section. I would love to be able to curate the sections more than we currently do from the general fiction.
Bernie: Filling infinite space with books would require more capital than I possess. But if more square feet were available at a reasonable price, I would fill it with comfortable chairs and many tables filled with book displays. I would also give every bookseller a section to fill with whatever books they liked regardless of whether they sold or not.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Courtney: It’s hard to say what we do better than other bookstores, but I really feel like we’re unlike any other bookstore I’ve been to. We are one thing. We are many things to many people. We’re a popular brunch spot. We’re a great place to get quirky cards. We’re a place where you can tuck in the corner and leaf through a stack of books. I watch people come into the store and they each use the space in their own unique ways. I think that’s unusual for a business.
Bernie: Before I opened my first bookstore in Vermont in 1976, I went to my favorite bookstore in Montpelier Vermont and asked the owner how many books were needed to open a bookstore. He laughed at the absurd question and told me to check out the American Booksellers Association in New York City. So I went there and they asked me how much capital I had to invest. They laughed when I told them, and suggested I get a job instead. Since then I have avoided comparing myself to others in the industry and just tried to be what I could be.
Clarissa: Since we’re a bookstore/cafe, then I would have to say we do breakfast better than any other bookstore! But in all seriousness, we have a great selection of magazines, and I’m particularly pleased with our staff picks. Our booksellers read across a wide expanse of titles, and I’m always proud of the amount of literary knowledge our staff has.
Who is your favorite regular?
Courtney: There’s a woman who comes in every few weeks and just loads up on books. She’s an old time Back Bay resident with a notable last name. She always asks my opinion on what to read, but rarely buys the books I recommend! Nonetheless, we have a great rapport and I thoroughly enjoy chatting every time she comes in.
Bernie: Trident has a café which has morphed over the years into a full-scale restaurant. In the early years when I would be the chef and the head bookseller and the dishwasher, I knew all the regulars. Some of them are now deceased and others have moved away or changed their habits. So I don’t really have any favorites just a sense of appreciation for all those people who made a home away from home at Trident and helped me figure out how to serve them properly. You see, the regulars always had a strong opinion about any change that was made so we always had to be careful and consider how to grow and accommodate at the same time. The regulars served and still serve as a kind of conscience. Not really in control but impossible to ignore.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Courtney: Oh boy, which do I choose? Honestly, the craziest situation had to be the Boston Marathon bombing. We were jam-packed that day. I was outside, meeting my dad so we could walk down to the finish line to see my brother finish (he was going to propose to his now wife at the end, but that’s a different story). My dad had biked in and heard the bombs go off. A few minutes later we saw people running down the street, some with dust over them. The police had us evacuate the store, but my dad and I and a few others stayed to clean up. There was no cell service. I remember feeling like the store was the safest place I could be at that time. I had control over what was happening in the store, but once I left, I didn’t know what was waiting for me.
What’s your earliest memory of visiting a bookstore as a child?
Courtney: Naturally, it was coming with my parents to work from the time I was born. My most solid memories have less to do with books and more to do with looking at the customers with their bright colored mohawks and various piercings. As I got older, my dad would bring a huge range of books for me to read, and I would devour them all. I guess I wasn’t too particular about what I read.
Bernie: My big Irish family had no money for shopping in bookstores so my introduction to books was the public library. I remember they had an age requirement to browse the adult part of the library. Somehow I convinced one of the children librarians to allow me to take books from the adult section. I quickly mastered the Dewey Decimal System to find the best adventure books by authors like Daniel Defoe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Victor Hugo. I always borrowed the maximum allowed throughout my childhood. Reading was my refuge and my entree into the world.
My first memory of an actual bookstore was from high school when I was with some friends who were daring each other to steal a book from the local store in Larchmont, New York. I went along as any 14-year-old boy would, but when it came time to actually take a book I chickened out.
Clarissa: My earliest memory of going to a bookstore is from when I was about three or four. The last time I visited my hometown, the store was still there, and as crammed and full of books as ever. It’s a used bookstore, and has the wonderful smell that most used bookstores have! Every inch of space is full, with piles of books on the ground. It’s very reminiscent of Sarah Stewart’s The Library! My memories of the bookstore are of sitting in the children’s section, pulling books off the shelf as I pleased, a large pile growing next to me.
If you weren't running a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Bernie: In the early 1970s, I finally realized that being a hippie was not a long term occupation and I was also getting nowhere writing the Great American Hippie Novel, so I struggled with what to do with myself. I was a self-taught car mechanic and actually opened a foreign car repair business in 1974—it was called Perpetual Motors! That only lasted a year before I was tired of being greasy all the time. The only thing I really liked to do was read so when my girlfriend said her life’s dream was to have a bookstore I completely embraced the idea and have never looked back. Best thing I’ve ever done.
What’s been your biggest surprise about working in a bookstore?
Courtney: I think the biggest surprise is the sheer quantity of books that are published and distributed every year. It’s just unbelievable how much work it takes to manage all those books!
Bernie: The biggest surprise is that 40 years later I’m still doing it! I had no idea what running a business was all about and I never had enough money so for at least 20 years it was a struggle. Then sometime in the late 1990s things began to improve and now we have a successful business. And we still sell books! Actual books made out of paper which the pundits declared obsolete years ago. So sometimes I need to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. I own a bookstore and it’s the 21st century. How amazing is that!
Clarissa: The biggest surprise about working at a bookstore is how I need to be able to have at least three recommendations ready to go for a customer who wants a new book. Customers want you to be prepared, even if their tastes and descriptions of what they read versus what they want are conflicting and/or vague…
SLIDESHOW: Trident Booksellers & Cafe Staff Recommendations