The New England Mobile Book Fair is New England’s largest independent book store, a massive structure of over 32,000 square feet, half of that being selling space. It’s not just a long-time local icon, it’s been an integral part of New England culture for years.
We spoke with owner Tom Lyons, who bought the place six years ago to save this cherished landmark. That's Tom on the left, with noted author Ray Daniel.
Tom told us a little of the history, how they completely revised everything, some of the community programs and writer support they offer, and also how tough it is to keep a huge expenditure open in today’s retail climate.
I’ll add that Tom and the store have been a tremendous boon to writers, especially local ones. They’ve hosted numerous signings, talks, and events, and give independent authors a local venue to send their fans to instead of going to Amazon. It’s also the best place for mystery authors north of New York City. Tom’s worked with the Mystery Writers of America, the Sisters in Crime, and other groups to present and promote their authors, and he’s given much support to authors at other venues.
Their annual December Mystery Gala Night book selling party is legendary, with famous authors, a bounteous buffet of tasty treats, and signed books for sale, capped with the presentation of the Robert B. Parker Award to a literary light of the mystery writing field. Tom instituted this award several years ago, with Parker’s widow Joan making the first presentation.
They offer so much more, including the Salute Series, which gives accolades to gardeners and artists, and Essay contests for 6th graders from area schools.
The quirky name of the New England Mobile Book Fair came from a woman who sold books to schools from the back of her station wagon in the early 50’s. Lou Strymish bought the business from her in the mid to late fifties. He opened his first brick-and-mortar store in West Roxbury in the late 50’s, in a garage. It later burned down, and he moved the store location to the present address at Needham Street in Newton. At that time, Route 128 (now 95) had not been finished, but the Needham Street exit was going to be a pass-through to Rte 9 and Boston. The NEMBF was the first retail operation on the street, where everything else was industrial. The store was actually in the space next door, now occupied by the china fair. When the building here at 82-84 Needham opened up, he leased and then eventually bought our current location.
So even though it kept the name of New England Mobile Book Fair, it is no longer mobile, or a fair. But being a local (and a New England) ICON, it didn’t make sense to change the name.
I actually had no intention of owning a bookstore. I had been a road warrior for 30 years, and had just finished an 18-month stint in Maryland, had a few weeks off, and decided to come over to the New England Mobile Book Fair to unwind. The hangar-like space with rows and rows of high and deep bookshelves has rooms, nooks and crannies, all jam-packed with books. It’s easy to get lost.
The bookstore was put up for sale in 2010. When I wandered in (June 2011), a manager told me that the store had not been sold. I was actually shocked, based on what it was and represented. I bought a few books and left, but over the next two weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking that as a local and a New England ICON and treasure, this store should not close.
I finally succumbed and called the business broker. I sat with him one Saturday for about 5 hours, going over the book store offering. The more I learned about the store, the more I understood why it hadn’t been sold yet.
Indie book stores were declining as Amazon grew, and Borders had already gone out. The NEMBF was a real mom-and-pop operation. There was no automated inventory, and no financials to review. They had all the books shelved by publisher, the way that schools and libraries ordered books in the 50’s and 60’s. But once automation was mainstream, everyone changed to ordering by author and or title, and it made it difficult to find a book without the help of the NEMBF staff.
I set out to move all the books into genres, like all the other bookstores. To help with the layout, we hired a good consultant, Kate Whourley. It took twenty-two months to move everything, and we had to scan a million books into inventory.
There were a number of things that we worked on continually, cutting useless expenses while improving service:
- Buying computers and an inventory-and-POS system
- The cost of electricity was over 6000 dollars a month. We added lighting throughout the store and outside, and ended up paying a no-interest loan to Nstar for 12 months to cover it, which cut the monthly cost down to 3000. Recently, we were able to switch providers, and cut it again to 2000 a month. It could be cut more if we went with LED lighting, but the cost to install is too high.
- We bought a new phone system that we paid off over three years, which cut phone costs from 3000 a month to around 800.
- We started controlling the buying process, which had been to buy 12 of everything and 60 to 100 of best seller titles at a time. We were much better off by cutting the number of books ordered and ordering more frequently.
We have books that many other bookstores don’t carry. Because of the size and content, we have four experienced buyers, where most bookstores only have one. They meet with Publisher reps three or four times a year and discuss hundreds of books about to be published, the authors, the content, the comparable literature, all before they make a decision to buy.
Another reason we have so many books not found in other stores is because we carry so many genres. For example, we have a row of eighteen bays of religion, spirituality, self-help etc., and each bay has eight or nine shelves. The reality is that that many books in those specific genres are not profitable, but the more popular books on mystery, fiction, history and so forth were sold in enough volume that the store could support those specialties.
Stores like Barnes & Noble and Costco have central buyers who provide the books to the stores, with obvious regional interest. They use automation to determine volumes and time on the shelf. It’s estimated that a book costs 1.5% of its cover price each month that it is left in inventory. So the big stores send lists of books that have been on the shelf for 3 months, called pull reports or something similar, and request the store to send the books back to the publisher for credit. They are in the volume business. Exceptions are made for Best Sellers, which continue to be ordered and kept in inventory An example is the mystery Gone Girl, which stayed on the Best Seller list for more than 18 months.
Now that I have had five years to learn the business, I feel comfortable talking about the challenges we face. Amazon is the gorilla in the room. Once they took hold, publishers were delighted that they ordered so many of their books, and probably every single title. It is estimated that Amazon provides 60% of all sales from publishers. That includes the sale of most e-books. While it started as a boon to the publishers, they are now at the mercy of Amazon, who controls the publishers, not the other way around. This has caused a huge problem for independent bookstores. Amazon continues to sell hardback books at a loss, making up the difference on Prime customer fees, shipping, etc., and still they have lost money for many, many quarters. Now that they are building brick-and-mortar stores, and still sell at the same price as on-line, they affect the local book market even more. I personally have no doubt that Jeff Bezos plans to put Barnes & Noble out of business, leveraging the brick-and-mortar strategy. More and more people go on-line to buy their books, and larger stores like NEMBF can no longer compete, because of the cost of overhead and the loss of revenue.
We almost broke even in 2014, and figured we would be profitable in 2015, but things changed rapidly in the world of publishing. Our bargain rooms, with 300,000 remainder titles, were no longer paying for the overhead. Mergers, changes in credit allowances, drastic cuts in the amount of compensation given on book sales, etc., resulted in cuts in inventory replenishment, more buying from wholesalers with less margin, and a continuation of decrease in foot traffic, as more and more people went online to buy books. Even schools and libraries, our mainstays, started buying directly from wholesalers who were competing with us.
Large book stores on the whole cannot survive in today’s marketplace. Willow Books in Acton, MA was around 10,000 ft., and they closed at the end of February, because they just couldn’t be profitable any more. Our research shows that bookstores that are 3,4,or 5 thousand square feet can and do survive, with lower overhead, staff, and inventory. One exception is Book People in Austin TX. When Borders tried to open a store in Austin, the entire community got together to make sure the city did not allow it, and they were able to keep their independent book store and support it. The result being that the store can do so much more for the community, the schools and the authors it supports. Unfortunately there isn’t the same type of community involvement here.
Our lease is up at the end of March 2017, and we are seeking an alternative location that is much smaller than what we have. We hope to be able to keep this iconic book store of more than 60 years open in a new venue. We are currently seeking an investor/partner so that we can fund a move, restock inventory levels, refocus on fewer genres, and continue to provide the experience and adventure of physical books.
So there you have it, campers. Make sure to follow wherever the store winds up. And right now there are terrific bargains, so get on down while they're around, and buy some good books!