Guess what’s anchoring many small downtowns?
Even in the age of online shopping, the answer is: bookstores
THE NEW ENGLAND MOBILE BOOK FAIR of my childhood wasn’t exactly mobile; it was a cavernous cinderblock warehouse of a store in Newton. Yet visiting the store was like going on a voyage, something like a trip to the Dead Sea caves where you might stumble upon ancient scrolls.
A couple of years ago, I found its rear catacombs empty, and even its front aisles spooky for their stillness during December’s peak shopping period. I began to think this was the fate of independent bookstores. I mean, we saw the movie already in 1998 – Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail. Fox Books takes down The Shop Around the Corner. In 2011, even Borders, the big box chain, went down.
So when I went to meet a friend at Brookline Booksmith that following spring, I was expecting the place to look dated, dusty, worn. Instead, patrons were in every aisle on a weekday morning, off-season. I found the glow of storyland, a stage set for a fantasy. I figured there are exceptions to any trend, and that’s Brookline for you, Coolidge Corner no less. Brookline Booksmith is special. It really is.
But that same spring I visited Winchester Center on an errand, and noticed its bookstore and toy store. Indeed, Winchester Center had everything – a train station and a 20-minute commute to Boston; a town green, with a farmers market; a white steeple church; a red Romanesque Town Hall; fancy restaurants and fast food; and a meandering little river. If you don’t live by Winchester Center, you may as well feel jealous of the people who do.
I have noticed that many of our region’s little downtowns – and not just those in the most affluent communities – boast independent bookstores, even in this age of online shopping. Shopping malls were supposed to do in our downtowns, and retail behemoths were supposed to crush our independent bookstores. I am happy to find that, for the moment, independent bookstores are anchoring our charming, antique village centers and other places, too.
For a typology of village centers, we could make a category: Places to hate for having it all. If you have a bookstore and a toy store, a train station, architecturally notable civic buildings and churches, an enviable selection of restaurants, and lovely residential roads radiating outward, then you are Wellesley Square, Concord Center, Belmont Center, Newton Center, or Winchester Center. They all have nice independent bookstores. And I do not actually hate these places.
Salem’s witch town has Wicked Good Books. Manchester-by-the-Sea has Manchester by the Book. Marblehead’s Spirit of ’76 was established in 1965. You might get tempted to skip Reading’s bookstore if you notice the Italian pastries next door. My kids came away from Medfield’s bookstore-toy-store with a soft pink turtle. Acton’s bookstore is The Silver Unicorn. And, of course, it is not a surprise that Cambridge can support several independent bookstores, including Porter Square’s bookstore cafe.
Dedham Square, a charming historic neighborhood, also has a bookstore café. Some bookstores are remaking themselves, in the way our shopping malls are becoming entertainment centers, with movie theaters and restaurants. The bookstores might now sell coffee and quirky gifts, display art, and host events.
Arlington Center almost qualifies to join the list of places to hate for having it all, with a bookstore, toy store, modernist interpretation of a white steeple church, 1925 artsy movie theater, and all of that jazz. Its Mexican restaurant features Taco Tuesdays. But Arlington doesn’t have a train station (residents rejected an extension of the Red Line), although it is now getting bus rapid transit, so far to decent reviews.
Arlington’s rad bookstore sells them used. I asked the store clerk, “Do you have any books about chess?”
Waltham also has a used-book store, not too far from its Little India, the best buffet around.
And then there’s Burlington. Burlington never had a train station or a river; it has no village center from the pre-auto age. But it does have a town center, a series of one-story strip malls, and a lot of pavement. At the center’s center, behold: Used Books Superstore. If ever there were redemption for strip malls and the big box store, it is Used Books Superstore. I bought my kids some Beverly Cleary.
As for New England Mobile Book Fair, it became mobile and left Newton’s Needham Street for a moment. But now it is back, in smaller digs, near its old location. Needham Street has long been a commercial corridor, but now it is getting made-over into more of a village, with a lot of housing, better pedestrian ways, and (we hope) new transportation options. Unlike the region’s historic town centers, Needham Street will continue to house many national chain stores; independent New England Mobile Book Fair will be an amenity fit for a village.I actually have been inside the caves by the Dead Sea. I know that world travel is a fabulous privilege and thrill. But so is local travel – to cozy, delightful villages and their glowing bookstore storylands.
Amy Dain runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @amydain