A Peek at Newtonville Books

Just after celebrating its 20th anniversary, Newtonville Books is still up and running. Despite a transfer of ownership and a change of location, Newtonville Books remains a relevant, independent brick-and-mortar bookstore, even in the age of Amazon retail.

From the hands of original owner Tim Huggins to current owners Mary Cotton and Jaime Clark, Newtonville Books doesn’t try to compete with online retailers. Rather, it “can co-exist,” in the words of Cotton, and for her, nothing can replace the experience of an independent bookstore.

Fresh out of her undergraduate education at Williams College, Cotton began working at the original Newtonville Books. Huggins, who learned about bookselling at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss., opened Newtonville Books in 1998—which later moved to its current location in Newton Centre—on Walnut Street in Newtonville, Mass.

“[Huggins] really endeavored to create a warm, open store where customers could spend hours happily browsing,” Cotton said.

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Upon entry to Newtonville Books, the sheer magnitude of the store’s book collections is startling. For a quaint, independent bookstore, Newtonville Books packs a lot of literary content—books cover the walls, shelves stand tall, and tables of books often fill every nook and cranny of free space. It’s easy to get lost browsing books, punny greeting cards, and cute (albeit unnecessary) knick-knacks—Cotton continues to fulfill Huggins’ desire of an entertaining, cozy bookstore.

From the very start, Cotton fell in love with bookselling. Her background is rich in literature and writing. With an M.A. in English literature from Boston University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine, and multiple editorial positions under her belt—most notably, she’s the current fiction editor for Post Road, a literary magazine—Cotton seemed destined to take over Newtonville Books from her first days as an employee.

“I started working at the bookstore after college, and I loved everything about it,” Cotton said. “Being a bookseller and helping people find the book they don’t know they are looking for is very satisfying.”

So, in 2007, Cotton bought Newtonville Books from Huggins with her husband, Jaime Clark. Clark is also a pro in the literary world. With experience as a creative writing professor at University of Massachusetts, Emerson College, and Boston College, an author of multiple novels, and founding editor of Post Road, Clark and Cotton create the perfect literature powerhouse couple to take the reigns of Newtonville Books.

Today, the dynamic duo host programs and events in the store—distinguishing the experience of buying a book or attending an event in a real bookstore rather than clicking away on the internet to purchase books and novels online. Once or twice a week, Newtonville Books hosts author events. An author of a novel or book will come into the store, usually read an excerpt of their work, and participate in a Q&A session for those attending—the best part of the evening, according to Cotton.

With the likes of novelists of fiction works—like Juliette Fay, author of City of Flickering Lights: A Novel—to authors of non-fiction books—such as Lee McIntyre, author of The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience—Newtonville Books has an event for every bookworm in the area. Recently, Newtonville Books hosted an event with author Amy Hempel, a contemporary short story writer, and successfully filled the store with fans.

“[Hempel] is my favorite contemporary short story writer. She’s incredible. It was packed,” Cotton said. “We’ve had the store for a long time now but I still am moved by hearing an author read their work, and by listening to them answer questions that provide even more insight into their writing or writing process.”

Still, there’s a personal element to shopping at Newtonville Books that makes the trip to Newton Centre worthwhile. For Cotton, it’s the booksellers of Newtonville Books—Cotton’s own entrepreneurial roots—that bring the store to life. Talking to customers, giving recommendations, refilling the shelves with new works are all part of the job—adding an intimacy to this book-buying experience.

One such bookseller at Newtonville Books is Deb Handy—an employee for almost eight years. Her primary job is taking care of customers, but there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes before the actual sale.

“But before we get to the actual taking their money, making the sale, there’s very frequently the making [of] recommendations, showing them different things, making suggestions, trying to gather a read on what they like to read… what might suit them,” Handy said.

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Each of the employees tends to have a genre of books they’re well-versed in—a specialty of sorts to help find the customer the perfect book for their tastes. And there’s no shortage of works to recommend. Monday through Friday, Newtonville Books receives a shipment of books they’ve ordered to stock the shelves chock-full of the latest books and novels.

Nestled in the heart of Newton Centre, alongside the likes of Johnny’s Luncheonette—a popular diner with plenty of traffic from BC students and parents—and other well-liked restaurants, such as Little Big Diner, Newtonville Books receives plenty of attention, much of which are couples or families popping in on their way to dinner.

“We’re close to the Little Big Diner, which has incredible ramen and always a wait, so we get a lot of people who are waiting for a table,” Cotton said. “Then they get a phone call, say they’ll be right there, and then usually buy a book. ‘Ramen?’ I’ll say to them, and they’ll nod. I’m always jealous.”

Newtonville Books is quaint, but the energy of the bookstore and passion of the staff and owners is anything but. Attracting regulars, randoms, and all those in between, Newtonville Books has a variety of kitschy knick knacks and a slew of books for any bookworm to enjoy.


Isabella Cavazzoni

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