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SUBURBAN DIARY

Closing the book on a local treasure

Last week, the Waldenbooks store on Great Plain Avenue in Needham closed. To corporate planners, the Needham location was simply a bullet on a PowerPoint presentation, one item on a long list. But some folks in Needham see the closing on a more personal level. They feel that something has been lost. And so, it seems, do I.

I don't live in Needham; I haven't, for more than 20 years. My association with that Waldenbooks dates to 1982, when I was sent there as a newly minted manager with a mission -- clean it up -- and a promise: If you get it running smoothly, we'll give you the next big Boston store.

It turned out my superiors were speaking literally with their injunction to clean. This, I discovered the night before I was due to start working.

Imagine the most zealous pack rat you know, and multiply his or her stash tenfold. To that accumulation, add daily shipments of books, their associated bulk and paperwork; throw in several fistfuls of broken Rubik's Cubes; finish with a generous portion of cigarette butts. Now you have a sense of what I faced.

The next morning, I met the staff and outlined the new rules of order. By the end of the following day, everyone had resigned. It wasn't the action I had in mind, but I was free to staff the store with a group of intelligent, dedicated, and kind women, one of whom, June Erikson, matched the right book with the right customer for the next 15 years.

A year after my successful clean up, I moved to a bigger store -- not a Waldenbooks, but the soon-to-open six-story Boston University Bookstore.

Several years later, I launched my own business as a book industry consultant. Many more years passed before my own book was published and I was sent on book tour. A veteran now of two tours, I've visited bookstores across the country, many large and filled with light, and most of them independent. The Needham Waldenbooks was never on my itinerary.

How can I feel the absence of a place I haven't visited in so long? Why, I can't even say for sure what kind of store it has become; my image lives in memory, trapped in time. I don't know, for example, what happened to the customer we called Mr. Romance. He visited weekly, claiming his six-pack of the latest series romances, bundled with a rubber band and set behind the counter. Surely, he had a name, perhaps even a career -- we speculated he might be a budding romance writer studying his craft -- but names and numbers were unnecessary. He paid cash, and we knew exactly what he wanted and where to find it.

Mr. Romance, if he lives, might order his books online these days. Amazon.com offers the convenience of in-home shopping. But I'm guessing that he would prefer to pick up his books in person. There's something that happens between the staff of a neighborhood store and its customers. It's a kind of knowing more even when you know less. A kind of acceptance. A neighborhood bookstore will attract some folks you may or may not want to invite to your next dinner party -- eccentrics, misfits, and even the occasional weirdo. But the staff of a good neighborhood bookstore will make every one of those individuals feel welcome.

The Waldenbooks in Needham, despite its corporate affiliation, was a neighborhood bookstore: a place of comfort and stability for Mr. Romance, a place that offered sociability and solace along with books to read. Many in Needham mark its closing as the death of a good neighbor. To me, it feels like something closer to the passing of a far-off relative -- someone who was always important to me, despite the distance between us.

Kate Whouley is the author of the memoir "Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved." She lives and writes on Cape Cod.

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