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Cambridge bookstore, founded as an online/offline hybrid, takes to web to look for new owner

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 26, 2012 10:34 AM

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Lorem Ipsum Books isn't your typical used bookstore: the Inman Square shop was founded by MIT Media Lab grad Matt Mankins, as an off-shoot of his business selling used books online. "Rather than run from technology, we were going to embrace it to provide a new sales channel," Mankins recently wrote. Each book's price was set using software that searched the Internet to determine how rare or common it was, and factored in the book's condition. Mankins wrote the software himself, of course.

But nine years after Lorem Ipsum opened, Mankins now works in New York, as the chief technology officer for the company that publishes Inc. & Fast Company magazines. And the Cambridge bookstore, created as an attempt to get e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar to work together harmoniously, is losing money. (There have been earlier cash crunches, too.) Mankins tells me that he has never drawn a salary from the store, working various software-related day jobs over the years.

Over the weekend, Mankins posted a message to the Hacker News discussion forums announcing that Loreum Ipsum is for sale, and soliciting creative ideas about how to sustain a bookstore in the Age of Amazon. It has sparked 86 comments so far. The suggestions range from "sell the inventory and find another business to be in" to printing PhD theses, setting up an in-store café, or turning part of the store into a co-working space for freelancers and entrepreneurs. There are even a few respondents who seem interested in talking to Mankins about taking over Lorem Ipsum.

"I'm looking for someone to pick up the fight, to be an on-the-ground advocate proclaiming 'bookstores are here to stay…if we can change with the times,'" Mankins writes via e-mail. (He acknowledges that running the store from New York, where he has lived since 2009, may have contributed to its situation.) "Ideally I'd find an innovator who enjoys reading, understands the community benefits that bookstores provide, and isn't afraid to do things differently to nudge the store and the industry in different directions. I just started the process of looking in earnest. I don't really want to sell the store, but think it's the right thing for the store."

An excerpt of Mankins' Hacker News post is below.

I started Lorem Ipsum Books 9 years ago with the belief that bookstores were an important part of our community — and that they needed to innovate in order to survive. Freshly out of graduate school at MIT the bookstore was started with the notion that integrating Internet-sales into a traditional brick-and-mortar bookstore was the way forward for small retailers. Rather than run from technology, we were going to embrace it to provide a new sales channel. With a group of friends I built this new way forward, creating Lorem Ipsum Books in Inman Square, Cambridge.

Lorem Ipsum benefited from a custom-coded inventory system that automatically listed our inventory for sale at other online partners like It was fun to use, efficient, and worked. For awhile there, it looked like this dual-listing was the answer to bookstore's problems. Then supply-ballooned, demand remained the same, and prices dropped.

We tried many things, but were unable to get the store from red to black.

...It's time to innovate again.

The bookstore needs fresh ideas, a radical change in thinking, and a reimagining of the role of the bookstore in the future. I don't want to shut the store down, but may be forced to. Instead, I'm looking to pass the store to other keepers — other innovators — hands.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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