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Bookstore opens a new chapter

Forced to downsize, McIntyre and Moore forsakes Davis for Porter Square basement

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / April 13, 2008

Mike McIntyre and Dan Moore met an unfilled need when they opened their academically oriented used-book store in 1983. They still do - but the niche just got smaller.

Last week, McIntyre and Moore Booksellers downsized from a spacious Davis Square storefront to a Porter Square basement.

True, the store had spent only 10 years at 255 Elm St., after 15 years in Harvard Square. But it felt like a fixture in the Davis Square landscape as property values spiked and restaurants and chain stores blossomed.

The move cuts the store's space in half to about 2,100 square feet, Moore said. But the rent dropped even more, to just over 20 percent of the old figure.

It meant "having less of a monster to feed," according to Moore, in a changing marketplace.

"The sales went down," Moore said, by 20 to 25 percent during the past three or four years. "I actually thought that the best chance would be Internet-only," he said, even though online sales accounted for only about 20 percent of the store's business.

Moore laments the loss of the used-book-browsing culture. You can find any book you want online, but you can't find "the fine stuff it didn't occur to you to look for," Moore said. "They're missing possibilities."

As the owners searched for a new site, Bob Slate stepped up with a space the store had considered 20 years before: 1971 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. The Bookcellar Café and Unicorn Books closed there in recent years, but Moore said he hopes that new toy and craft stores upstairs, plus Porter Square Books nearby, would help draw enough traffic.

He was grateful for the reprieve. "I made a point of putting two boxes here the first day," he said.

Of course, then he had to move the rest.

So just how do you box up a bookstore? In five weeks and 1,000 cartons, with a closeout sale, good will, and back pain.

Step 1: Sell
Nothing draws business like a fire sale. On March 9, with discounts at 40 percent, about 30 patrons of the Davis Square location gazed at the store's bookshelves in that abstracted way, heads tilted. A man with an orange safety hat that said "I'm in it for the bucks" read in an armchair on the sunny front platform.

Books disappeared at a fast clip. Health and wellness volumes slumped on the shelf. Over half of the cooking section was gone.

Even with the signs explaining the situation, many patrons asked about the move.

"Nobody has been indifferent," said seven-year employee Trevor Pratt.

Reactions ranged from regret over the downsizing to relief the store wasn't going under.

Marc Moskowitz of Arlington, 35, fell into the latter camp. "It'll be sad not to have it here, but I'm glad it'll still be around," he said.

Pratt was apprehensive about the move into the new space. "I walked by and peered in, and it just seemed tiny to me," she said. "I was like, 'Oh my God, how are we going to fit everything in here?' But I suppose we'll have to."

Then she had to stop talking; two customers had 18 books to buy.

Step 2: Pack
On March 30, staffers hung a handwritten sign on the door: "Sorry we're closed." A bookshelf blocked the entrance.

"We've had to chase people out all day," said employee Rachel Rosner.

The tearing sound of tape being peeled off a roll told the tale.

"This is just relentless. I never could've imagined how many there were," Pratt said, taking the opportunity to rest her sore back.

She hadn't started on the front half of the store yet, but the back was lined with boxes stacked four high, at 40 to 50 pounds each. Pale strips of linoleum showed where shelves had blocked dirt for a decade. A crumpled flier advertised a performance from, it seemed, 1999.

"I had a dream about box upon box of books and I couldn't see over them," said Eliza Jerrett, elbow-deep in African-American studies, her arm reddened from hefting boxes, "and I come in to work, and here it is."

Every used-book store is different; this one was more different than most.

"When I found out an owner made political postcards using stuffed animals I knew I wanted to work here," said recent hire Kerry Fallon.

McIntyre keeps about 800 of those animals in the basement. They're destined for the store's warehouse in Lawrence, as were some books.

"I wouldn't want to work anywhere else," said Jerrett. "[I] fell in love with this bookstore. . . . You just find so many interesting books."

She cited a work called "Penetrating Wagner's Ring" and a collection of Bettie Page memorabilia in the dungeon-like basement.

Interesting people used to turn up as well, such as singer Peter Wolf.

"I think those girls are too young to know who Peter Wolf is," Pratt said.

"Whatever, Trevor!" protested Jerrett, who, according to her T-shirt, wanted to rock and roll all night. "J. Geils, right?" (She had correctly identified Wolf's affiliation, but didn't know he was the band's lead singer.)

With the store's move, "Davis Square is just getting less fun all the time," Fallon said.

Pratt felt more optimistic.

"I was never that enamored of the space itself," she said, comparing it to a warehouse. She described the new store as "cozy."

"I like change," she said. "I've been here for a long time. It remains to be seen what it'll be like over there."

Step 3: Open
Sawdust on the steps. Sawdust on the window. Sawdust creating a haze in the air. The new store was very much a work in progress a few weeks ago as manager/handyman Peter Coyle sawed shelves, some of which dated to the Harvard Square location.

No sunlighted front landing here. The new space is a rabbit warren, with six rooms and white, painted cinderblock walls.

Moore led a tour over the fake stones a previous tenant painted on the floor.

A raised kitchen would be the new service desk.

A stairway to nowhere climbed out of the store's first-ever rare books room.

Moore put a positive spin on the change.

"In a sense, it's really a return to roots," he said. "It will be very different from what we're used to, but really what's different for a used-book store is what we're used to."

(Also, unlike the Davis store, the new space has a restroom for use by its customers.)

Initially, Moore and McIntyre hoped to finish the move by the end of last month, but there was too much work, too many unpacked books.

On Monday, they hired a 26-foot truck for the final push, and opened with a skeleton selection on Thursday.

But even before the big day, the new McIntyre and Moore Booksellers already had its new sign - of a sort. In the sawdust coating the small front window, Coyle had traced one word: "BOOKS."

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