The Brookline Booksmith and Marshall Smith: Local Upstart, East Coast Phenomenon, and Local Institution
Update: As of October 21, 2013 there is video related to this post on our website.
When I moved to Jamaica Plain this fall one of my favorite local discoveries was Brookline Booksmith in the nearby Coolidge Corner neighborhood of Brookline. In a world of impersonal online mega-booksellers and big box behemoths more interested in sales than diversity of offerings and personal service, the locally owned bookshop was a breath of fresh air. While going through the WCVB collection a particular record caught my eye because of the title “Paperback Booksmith R.E.” For those readers not accustomed to 1970s local news cameraman speak “R.E.” means real estate, or footage of the outside of buildings important to a story.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="450"] Child Reading at Brookline Booksmith. Photo by Tim Pierce.[/caption]
The text of the record goes on to describe the bankruptcy of the Booksmith in January 1979, effecting stores ‘all over New England.’ Having only been to one local Booksmith store, the idea of more of them grabbed my interest. According to information available online from various sources, there were some where between 69 and 75 Booksmith stores at their peak in the 1970s. However the beginnings were fairly humble, a single store store in downtown Boston opened 1961. Later in the same year the Brookline shop opened. At the time the idea of a paperback only store was a new and different and was a major reason for the shop’s success. Paperbacks were not taken as seriously by publishers and retailers, but were a budget conscious alternative for consumers.
One common theme I noticed in the Booksmith story was a constant evolution, and that seems to derive from founder Marshall Smith. In a Publisher’s Weekly profile from 1998 he explained one of the stores’ first changes simply, "When general stores began to get serious about paper, we got serious about hardcovers." This shift in inventory wasn’t the first for The Booksmith, as stores began to carry cassettes and LPs as well in the 1970s; even expanding this market into another chain, the Musicsmith, which had 4 stores up and down the East Coast and $7 million dollars of sales in 1978. Smith was also happy to engage the public with new literary voices, featuring author Kurt Vonnegut at the Cambridge Booksmith very early in the author’s career. To appeal to the local students he scheduled the event for midnight on a Friday. At the time Vonnegut did not make many public appearances to promote his work, so this event was very special. “We stopped traffic completely in Harvard Square. It was a mob scene, and Vonnegut was gre at!” recalled Smith in the book ‘Voices of Brookline.’
The success of the local stores led to the expansion of Paperback Booksmith as a franchise with stores across the East Coast. In 1978 the chain had sales of $35 million dollars. However, this was not enough to maintain the vast network of stores, and Chapter 11 bankruptcy was filed in 1979. Fortunately for eastern book lovers, most of the stores were able to survive, some for 10 years or more, as privately owned shops. In 1998 Smith estimated that at least 20 of these stores were still open. This setback did not stop Smith, in 1981 he opened Videosmith which was one of the first video rental chains. It also had simple beginnings, starting in the basement of the Brookline Booksmith. When he sold the chain in 1989 there were 11 stores and $7 million dollars in annual sales. The evolution continued in 1991 when Smith partnered with WGBH to open Learningsmith, beginning with a shop in what had been the Booksmith in Harva rd Square and a store in the Chestnut Hill Mall. The Learningsmith focused on a mix of education and fun across mediums such as books, software, toys and games, all tied into WGBH programing. After that the next step was in 1995 with Cybersmith, an internet cafe with gourmet coffee, books, and computer terminals for internet access. Smith stayed working in both the Brookline Booksmith and the Wellesley Booksmith until he retired in 2010 at 78 years old. According to a 2010 Publisher’s Weekly article he remains involved in the Brookline shop, and the Wellfeet Marketplace, a grocery store that also sells books, but he has since sold the Wellesley store. Even though Marshall Smith is no longer involved in the Booksmith full time, the shop still maintains the quirky charm that made it a success years ago. The Brookline Booksmith has been an asset to the local community for more than 50 years, and I hope it remains for at least 50 more.
References: "Smith to Retire, Puts Wellesley Booksmith up for Sale." PublishersWeekly.com. Web. 04 Apr. 2012. <http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/42508-smith-to-retire-puts-wellesley-booksmith-up-for-sale.html>.
"Voices of Brookline." : Excerpts from Selected Chapters. Web. 04 Apr. 2012. <http://www.voicesofbrookline.com/excerpts.html>.
Rifkin, Glenn. "THE MEDIA BUSINESS; PBS Station Sends 'Nova' to Shopping Mall." The New York Times. The New York Times. Web. 04 Apr. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/27/business/the-media-business-pbs-station-sends-nova-to-shopping-mall.html?n=Top/Reference/Times Topics/Subjects/T/Television>.
Wolfe, Laura. "No Problem, Closing Seen for Paperback Booksmith." The Nashau Telegraph 23 Jan. 1979: 4. Web. <http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2209&dat=19790123&id=_qIrAAAAIBAJ&sjid=o_wFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2518,4093493>.
"Paperback Booksmith Chain - 30 Stores Contine under Chaper XI." Billboard [Los Angeles, CA] 13 Oct. 1979: 78. Billboard. Web. <http://books.google.com/books?id=FCQEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PT145&lpg=PT145&dq=paperback+booksmith+bankrupt&source=bl&ots=8sw0SjzGtx&sig=xB1LvAL2VKWMhvkVc4LxMkmHTDY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6lN8T8aqF4jJ0AGI_6n2Cw&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=paperback%20booksmith%20bankrupt&f=true>.
Mutter, John. "Dana Brigham: Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass." Publishers Weekly 4 May 1998: 40+. Educators Reference Complete. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. Document URL <http://0-go.galegroup.com.library.simmons.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA20556239&v=2.1&u=mlin_b_simmcol&it=r&p=PROF&sw=w>