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The Writing on the Wall for Independents

Independent bookstores are struggling for survival, as the last two years have completely transformed the publishing industry and all of its many parts.
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To reach the reading space at the independent book store owned by Mary Cotton and Jaime Clarke, Newtonville Books in Boston, a writer has to pass through a slim corridor accessed by a few steps, and the process puts one in mind of the entire work of writing poetry or fiction; the narrow access-way of anecdote or memory cleaved into the facade of the mind breaching, eventually, and giving way to robust characters and full lives containing singular pathologies. Make it through and one is rewarded by a soft lit showcase of the bookstore's First Edition Book Club picks which reads like a who's who of the writing world both established (Dave Eggers, Samantha Hunt, Salman Rushdie, Stacey D'Erasmo, David Sedaris, Julia Alvarez, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, Edward P. Jones, Ha Jin and Lorrie Moore among hundreds of others), and new (Margo Raab, Josh Weil and yours truly). At last check, one could purchase one entire collection of signed First Editions for $10,000. But what is even more thrilling than the presence of those books upon the shelves are the signatures that fill the walls and trim of the waiting room and staircase. Spontaneous witticisms from the pens of Jonathan Lethem (a creature of uncertain origin with the accompanying statement: "Tiger or giant rat, you decide, chronically yours, J. Lethem") and doodles from Bret Anthony Johnston (a surfboard beside which Amy Hampel issues a dire threat: "Look out Bret, I just read here!"), testify to the deep camaraderie among writers as well as to their humanity.

Independent bookstores have struggled to weather the last two years which transformed the publishing industry and all its many parts. Many with a long history of serving specific populations, such as Lambda Rising in Washington DC and the Librairie de France in Manhattan, closed their doors after 35 and 73 years respectively. A few were fortunate to be rescued by a community that cherished what an independent bookstore always guarantees: stores owned by people who value the written, printed and spoken word. Brazos Bookstore in Houston was reopened thanks to fourteen investors who came to the fore and Kepler's in Menlo Park, California helped out the bookstore which was opened in 1955. Others like Cody's Books in Berkeley and Coliseum Books in New York have closed for good.

In such a climate, the story of Newtonville Books is a tale of serendipity that reads like a novel. Jaime Clarke, author of We're So Famous (Bloomsbury) and editor of Don't You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes (Simon & Schuster), knew the previous owner of the store, Tim Huggins who served as one of the editors of Post Road, the literary magazine Jaime co-founded with ex-Lemonheads drummer,David Ryan. They got close when Jaime needed a place to stay in order to teach a creative writing class at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Tim opened up his attic for the semester and Jaime began to attend events at Tim's bookstore. On one of those evenings he met Mary Cotton, a recent graduate from the Stonecoast MFA program and an equally recent addition to Newtonville Books.

Owning a bookstore is one of those things that writers dream about in the same way Olympic skiers dream of having the deed to a Swiss chalet. Indeed, most writers could, if they cobbled a few friends together, fill a small bookstore with enough stock to last through a solid winter. And yet, to make the leap from gathering our own private collections to owning a bookstore takes a lot more confidence than most of us possess. In Mary's case, her lifelong ambition to own a bookstore met Tim's decision to close the one he owned at exactly that precise moment when a person has two choices before them and realizes that opportunity was not merely knocking on their door but was seated across from them at the table with its own cup of java. Reaching an amicable agreement to take over a business is usually easier among friends and so, even though Mary had begun studying for her Masters in English Literature at BU and Jaime was teaching at Emerson, they took on a business in February, 2007, at a time when other businesses were bracing for the big fall. Not only that, they brought Post Road along for the ride for the first two years until its transition to its new home at Boston College.

The changes that Clarke and Cotton have made to the store serves as a reminder to what has always been important on the independent circuit, continuity laced with innovation. Newtonville Books extends itself not only to writers who are already published but those that aren't because they understand that many book-browsers are also dreaming of writing or actively doing so and not always with publication in mind. They began a series of store-based book clubs including the Prize-Winning Book Club, the Middle Reader Book Club and the Celebrity Book Club, which are lead by local writers. They developed partnerships with other arts organizations, in their case Grub Street which, in the space of twelve years, and under the guidance of acting-director, Christopher Castellani (A Kiss From Magdalena, The Saint of Lost Things), has become Boston's premier hub for creative writing and through whose considerable reach Newtonville Books benefits. The Newtonville Books Questionnaire - accessed through the store's blog - allows readers to interact directly with writers. Patrons are also offered a membership program whereby customers receive discounts on their purchases and offer both hardcover and paperback events through the reading series entitled, fittingly, Books & Brews. The mix has made Newtonville Books not just another stop on a book tour, but a vital destination for writers who want to be part of its scene; one which includes the unique experience of reading there, of conversing with readers beside the old metal wood-burning stove dating back to the 1850s which serves as a bar during events and, of course, memorializing their visit by scribbling on the walls. It is a remarkable accomplishment for a small bookstore in a city that is host to so many.

The reading space at the back of the store is like a large, cobbled courtyard where Le Resistance might have held meetings somewhere in France. The roof is high, the walls and floor are rustic. There is a small plinth facing a row of seats. One can imagine that remarkable words are being uttered, that something important is being transferred, that voice and accent and light have united to create something new, something beyond the books that both readers and audience hold in their hands. The wine sipped afterwards under the gaze of all those signatures, feels both necessary and deserved.

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