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Bookstores on the rise at local libraries

The new independent bookshop: It’s in your local library

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Library director Harry R. Williams III looks over the titles at the bookstore that opened last fall at the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy. Used books are priced between 50 cents and $2.

QUINCY — It’s Saturday afternoon, and the bookstore is buzzing. Young mothers snap up picture books for less than the price of a cup of coffee. A health coach thumbs through the latest book by Andrew Weil. The arms of an avid fiction reader sag under a stack of paperbacks.

“The price is perfect. This place is a gift,’’ said Ellen Murphy, 60, of Quincy, as she perused selections of gently used books at the shop that opened last fall in the Thomas Crane Public Library.

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Brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing faster than you can say “Kindle Fire.’’ But from Worcester to Truro, bookstores are resurfacing in an unexpected place: the town library.

It might seem incongruous that people would purchase books in a place where they’re accustomed to borrowing them for free. But in the past few years, a dozen or so libraries across the state have opened bookstores with dedicated staffs. In doing so, libraries have found a new source of income to finance programs.

Storage closets, refurbished basements, and forgotten areas of library buildings are now home to little shops with hundreds of used books, many of them in tiptop condition, available for sale. For less than the price of a shipping charge from Amazon, readers are helping their libraries buy museum passes, screen films, put on lectures, and offer other programs.

“So many bookstores are closed, but books don’t lose their appeal,’’ said Betty Molloy, president of Friends of the Thomas Crane Public Library, who launched the bookstore in Quincy’s library.

In the rear of the library, built in the 1880s, the Crane Library Bookstore is an inviting space with its own entrance and a children’s area. The books — which run the gamut from “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln’’ to the latest Danielle Steel romance — are priced between 50 cents and $2. Tote bags, sheet music, and mugs are also sold.

Staffed by volunteers and stocked with donations from patrons and townspeople, the store has so far been a successful venture, generating more than $6,500 in its first 14 weeks By contrast, the library’s twice-annual book sale nets about $6,500 a year, Molloy said. The money pays for library programs such as film screenings, cooking demonstrations, and puppet shows.

Sandra Moore of Jamaica Plain, shopping in the Crane Library Book Store, said she likes the look, smell, and feel of a new or gently read book, but buying them at chains such as Barnes & Noble is a pricey pastime.

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble. I spend money on new books,’’ said Moore, 63, grabbing a pristine copy of “Quakertown’’ by Lee Martin for $1. “I like bookstores. I’m so sad they are going out of business.’’

In Watertown Square, the most popular bookstore is on Main Street, but your GPS won’t cough it up. Tucked off the first floor of the Watertown Free Public Library, the store has a cafe, open six days a week, that brews fair trade coffee and sells gourmet sandwiches. It has become a magnet for frugal bookworms and kindergarten teachers hunting for affordable reads.

“It’s very similar to Barnes & Noble,’’ said Donald Bleech, who runs the cafe and helps ring up book sales, which amount to 30 to 40 titles a day.

The five-year-old shop has been so successful it has enabled the library to purchase iPads, Kindles, and Nooks that patrons borrow for a few hours or days.

Being able to purchase digital readers with the proceeds from the sale of printed books “points to the fact that people like to do both,’’ said Leone Cole, Watertown’s library director. “It’s a challenge in these economic times to provide more formats for the same title.’’

That’s a challenge library bookstores are stepping in to meet.

The $11,000 that the Friends of the Library Book Shop at the Milton Public Library cleared last year helped pay for Freegal, a digital music service allowing library-goers to download MP3s for free.

“We are trying to get people to realize they are in the shop buying a book that will ultimately help support their library,’’ said Connie Spiros, vice president of the Friends of the Milton Public Library.

Open four days a week, the store has a diverse selection of cookbooks, novels, DVDs, and CDs, all for under $2. “It’s an important way to raise money and to make sure people have a place to go for community spirit,’’ said Spiros.

There are at least a dozen library-run bookstores in the Commonwealth, some with regular hours staffed by volunteers, others operating on the honor system. It’s hard to know how quickly they are springing up, but “if more [libraries] feel this is a way to meet the needs in the community, we will see more,’’ said Celeste Bruno, communication specialist for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

The need for town libraries has not diminished. On the contrary, in a slowly rebounding economy, they are busier than ever. Between 2000 and 2011, library visits jumped 50 percent in the state, Bruno said.

Similar to church bake sales, book sales keep libraries flush. And bookstores are turning these annual cash cows into daily rituals, while standing in for commercial stores that have vanished from most Main Streets. One of the most successful is the Book Store Next Door in Wilmington.

The town purchased a small house next to the library in 2005. The Book Store Next Door opened two years later to “give residents a place to recycle old books, purchase books at good prices, and give back to the library to improve services,’’ said Christina Stewart, director of Wilmington Memorial Library.

Because the library has not undergone major renovations since it was built in 1969, monthly bookstore profits, an estimated $1,000 to $1,500, help the library meet a pressing need.

“We could not have done the makeover of the library, bought new furniture and equipment, or offered the programs here without it,’’ Stewart said.

The bookstore gained recognition last year when the town received an innovation award from the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

The Boston Public Library does not have an actual bookstore, but its Maproom Cafe currently sells eight titles, including “Red Sox Legends’’ and “Karsh Portraits.’’ BPL president Amy E. Ryan said it’s not surprising that some libraries are selling books.

“The entrepreneur, retail aspect of public libraries is an exciting and new initiative,’’ she said.

As some libraries have taken to selling books, others are now renting out their hottest titles to help balance the budget.

At the Lincoln Public Library, you might wait ages to borrow the latest Patricia Cornwell or James Patterson novel for free, but you can rent it for a dime a day. “That’s not much for entertainment,’’ said Barbara Myles, library director.

Because books are up for grabs throughout library networks, a patron could be in pursuit of a hot title for months. By renting instead of loaning, readers have a better shot at getting a bestseller sooner.

“I hate for patrons to come and not have what they want,’’ said Eden Fergusson, director of the Raynham Public Library, where $1 a week rents “The Help’’ or “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’’ “It’s our only way of keeping a bestseller in the library free of holds. Some people love it; some hate it.’’

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kmdpierce@gmail.com.
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