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Starting a new chapter

Against the odds, three sets of owners try to run independent bookstores

Hope springs eternal, especially in the heart of an independent bookseller. Hope is essential -- in the age of superstores and Internet retailers such as, making a success of a bricks-and-mortar neighborhood bookshop is one of the toughest jobs going.

The number of independent bookstores is declining.

''No more stores are closing today than five years ago," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. ''It's just that there are fewer opening, so the number keeps going down. We lose 350 to 400 members a year. If we get 100 new stores opening, we're doing well."

In the past year, the well-loved WordsWorth Books closed in Harvard Square, as did Paperback Booksmith in Hanover.

Bookport, a tiny shop in Hingham Square, recently posted a sign announcing plans to close.

''It's a huge challenge to maintain a successful independent bookstore these days," said Kate Whouley, a bookselling consultant from Centerville.

Even so, something about owning and running a bookstore continues to attract new people.

They couldn’t bear to leave books behind

CAMBRIDGE -- Given WordsWorth's demise, a new store in town would seem an improbable venture, but the owners of the new Porter Square Books would beg to differ. The six partners managed the prestigious Concord Bookshop until late 2003, when they left over a disagreement with the owner. Determined to stay in bookselling, the six got together and opened a new store last October in the Porter Square shopping center, next to the MBTA Red Line and commuter rail station.

They just couldn't bear to leave bookselling. ''We were all on the same wavelength," said co-owner Jane Dawson, ''and we thought, 'How can we let it go?' We felt we are damn good at what we do." Co-owner Carol Stoltz said, ''It's our passion; we weren't ready to stop." Dale Szczeblowski added, ''We enjoy the day-to-day work of running a bookstore. We like merchandising and talking to customers about books." The other partners are Jane Jacobs, Leslie Riedel, and Nancy Jandl. All six work at the new store.

The partners consulted the Small Business Development Center at Boston College, wrote a business plan, and took out a bank loan. Through a real estate broker, they found Gravestar Inc., owner of the Porter Square center. Gravestar wanted an independent bookstore in the space formerly occupied by a Dress Barn. The partners studied the demographics of the area and concluded that the 3,500-square-foot space, with plenty of free parking, was perfect.

''There are 17,000 people within a quarter-mile of this spot," Szczeblowski said, citing census figures, ''and they're not students or down-and-outs -- they are professionals and families. Ten percent are listed as households with children, but we have found that our children's book business is closer to 20 percent. With the T and the commuter rail stop here, this mall is like a main street."

''The welcoming response from the community has been overwhelming," Szczeblowski said. ''We had 175 people here for a reading," said Stoltz. Dawson added, ''We already have 8,600 people in our customer appreciation program" -- in which customers sign up for a discount plan to spend at least $150. There's also a plan for a small in-store cafe in the near future.

While the partners say they are encouraged by sales so far, the jury will be out until they get through the all-important 2005 Christmas season; last Christmas came too soon after opening to be a true test. Besides location, financing, and a good plan, they say a critical element to bookselling success is the one-to-one, book-by-book contact with customers, which can give an independent store an advantage over a superstore.

''We're not selling widgets," Dawson said. ''When you believe in something, you want to share it with someone. It's a good feeling to get the right book in the right hands."

Couple dives into a world of words

DUXBURY -- Chris and Marilyn Haraden of Hanover had no bookstore experience, so they bought an established store from an experienced operator: 59-year-old Westwinds Books, owned by Cissy Greenbaum.

Greenbaum had owned the 1,000-foot store, in a small, wood-shingle shopping center on Depot Street, for six years and had worked there for 13. Her husband and business partner died recently, and with him gone, she said, ''It wasn't as much fun as it had been." She decided to sell. She was determined not to let the store die. ''To let it go dark after 59 years would have crushed me," she said.

Chris Haraden, 34, is the public relations director for Jack Conway real estate in Hanover, and his wife, Marilyn, 29, has been busy taking care of their sons, 3-year-old Matthew and 1-year-old Adam. Marilyn was experienced in retail, having managed a corporate food service, and she was ready to get back to work. The couple decided on a bookstore and worked with Kate Whouley, the bookselling consultant, to find one. They settled on Westwinds, and bought it last month.

Greenbaum spent many hours with the Haradens. ''I told them the whole truth about running a bookshop," she said, ''so they won't say later, 'My God, we didn't know it would be like this.' " She also says she tried to make it as financially workable for them as possible. ''I saw they had the energy that I had lost," Greenbaum said. ''I have a good sense that they could make it work and the customers would support them."

''We were looking for something we could both do," Chris said during an interview at the store, although Marilyn is the primary manager. They live 20 minutes away. ''With a bookstore, we thought it would be something we would never get tired of, we would always want to come to work," he said. Chris works at the store on weekends, while Marilyn works about 25 hours during the week -- they have a nanny to care for the boys. Fortunately, Greenbaum's three part-time employees are staying on.

The Haradens acknowledge that they have a lot to learn. ''People say, 'What [books] do you recommend?' " Chris said. ''We both like to read for pleasure, but we're on a learning curve -- learning about authors we've not been exposed to. Cissy walked out, and we walked in. We're the ninth owners. Each put their mark on the store, and we will, too." Marilyn added, ''For the first few years, all our profits will go to pay off the loan. We're planning on being here for the future."

Risking failure, with enthusiasm

WALTHAM -- Westwinds is an established store with new booksellers, while the Porter Square partners are established booksellers with a new store. Back Pages Books is new at both ends.

Co-owners Ezra Sternstein and Alex Green, both 22, graduated from Brandeis last year with liberal arts degrees. Neither had a clear future plan or a job. In an interview in their store on Moody Street, Ezra explained, ''Alex asked me, 'Do you want to open a bookstore in Waltham with me?' I said, 'OK.' That's our creation myth."

They consulted the Service Corps of Retired Executives to get some grounding on running a small business. They walked around looking for a vacant location and found a former gift shop with 1,000 square feet. They bought the existing countertop from the previous shopkeeper and had simple bookcases built. They bought a computer, retailing software, and inventory from Ingram, the bookselling wholesaler, and opened the door April 18. They buy and sell both new and used books. They've already had author appearances -- the most prominent was poet Franz Wright, who lives in Waltham -- and hope to offer coffee for customers as soon as they can get the plumbing altered.

Asked how they got the start-up capital, Green said, ''No bank would look at us. We had the four F's -- family, friends, fools, and fanatics." Like the other owners, they say the neighborhood has been enthusiastic. ''People in this community have been the nicest I've ever dealt with," said Green.

While Green and Sternstein were talking, Michal Goldman and Kathryn Dietz of Waltham stopped in. They had heard about the store and wanted to see what it was like. ''Do you have anything by Orhan Pamuk?," Goldman asked, and Green and Sternstein rushed off to check. They did, but not the one Goldman wanted. Even so, the visitors seemed delighted. Goldman told Sternstein and Green, ''It's wonderful to have a bookstore here. I'm so pleased you had the chutzpah to do it."

Chutzpah they have, and, despite the long odds of succeeding, lots of enthusiasm.

''What's the worst that can happen?" Green asked. ''This is something we love and care about greatly. We're willing to take a chance of failing."

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