Closing the Book on a Local Treasure

Last week, another Waldenbooks closed—the store on Great Plain Avenue in Needham. Parent company Borders, Inc. has been systematically closing the aging Walden stores for the past several years. To corporate planners, the Needham location was simply a bullet on a Power Point 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 twenty years. My association with that Waldenbooks dates back to 1982, when I was sent there as a newly-minted manager with a mission: clean it up; and with 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. Using the key I'd been given, I let myself in after-hours, thinking, "It's only been open a year—how bad can it be?"

Imagine for me, the most zealous pack-rat you know, and multiply his or her stash ten-fold. 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 that Sunday evening. Monday morning, I faced the staff. Armed with the Waldenbooks Action Plan I'd typed in the intervening hours, I 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 fifteen 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—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, bearded 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, may order his books online these days. Amazon.com offers the convenience of in-home shopping. But I'm guessing he'd prefer to pick up his books in person. There's something that happens between the staff of 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.


Reprinted from The Boston Globe, February 1, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Kate Whouley
www.katewhouley.com