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Independent bookstore appeal grows

When Tom Lyons bought the New England Mobile Book Fair, he found inventory was not automated.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When Tom Lyons bought the New England Mobile Book Fair, he found inventory was not automated.

When Porter Square Books sold in August, it was the fourth prominent Boston-area independent bookstore to change hands in the past five years. The fourth brokered by the same Needham mergers-and-acquisitions guy. The fourth bought by a middle-aged-ish wealthy person or a couple with absolutely no experience in bookstores, save for a love of them.

And only one pair of cat owners among them.

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If you ask these new owners what they know about the business that they didn’t before they switched sides of the cash register, almost to a person they let out a laugh that’s less an expression of mirth than a question: “How much time do you have?”

It’s a laugh that hints at the complexities of inventory control and payroll processing, and at the perverse fact that bookstore owners have little time to read the books that lured them into the business in the first place.

“What I miss about my career in industry are the long plane rides where I could read undisturbed,” said Jeff Mayersohn, a retired tech executive who, with his wife, bought the Harvard Book Store in 2008. “Owning a bookstore is a lot of work.”

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Jeff Mayersohn, a retired tech executive, bought the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge with his wife in 2008. He said owning a bookstore is a lot of work.

And yet, despite the indie bookstore’s image as an endangered species, or perhaps because of it, owning one has become the modern retirement — or midlife escape — fantasy. It’s a bed-and-breakfast for people who want to discuss novels with strangers, not serve them muffins.

Workshops for prospective booksellers are filled with stressed career types who imagine a life of chatting with authors and other avid readers, and who see a bookstore as their ticket out, said Donna Paz Kaufman, the founder of The Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates, a Florida-based training and consulting firm for independent bookstores. “We get a lot of female attorneys.”

‘I had no intention of owning a bookstore, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind.’

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All of the new local owners say they love owning the stores they once shopped in. “Every day we come home and say this is the best thing we ever did,” said Dina Mardell, half of the couple that bought Porter Square Books, and a veteran educator. But some people finish Paz Kaufman’s how-to course with the disappointing realization that owning a store isn’t for them, she said.

“When people learn that there’s a 5 to 7 percent return on investment that sounds like pretty slow payback, especially when you are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars upfront.”

The gifts, toys, cards, and nonbook items most stores sell are “much more profitable” than books, she said, adding that the margins on e-books are “pathetically low.”

Closer to home, the man who has become king of the indie bookstore deal said none of the buyers bought the stores to run as charities, but neither were they expecting to get rich off the backs of gluten-free diet books, mindful living calendars, and the artisan chocolates near the register. They’re in it for the psychic income.

“I sell a lot of businesses,” said Paul Siegenthaler, president of Ridge Hill Partners Inc., “and buyers are always calling and telling me all the problems with the business I’m selling — they tell me why it’s not worth as much as the seller thinks it is.” Except for the aspiring bookstore buyers, he said. “They call and tell me why they should be chosen as the next owner of the bookstore.”

He declined to name sales figures or bookstores he has turned down, but said all stores were firmly established as institutions. “I get calls all the time from people who have small bookstores that are scraping by, but I can’t sell a store that isn’t beloved.”

It would be overly optimistic to declare a golden age of indies, but the CEO of the American Booksellers Association said the Boston-area store sales, and others across the country, mark a change.

Among the recent high-profile sales are Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., which was bought by two Washington journalism and public policy veterans in 2011; and, in March, the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, a suburban Chicago store that was named the 2012 Publishers Weekly’s bookstore of the year. A former lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mother bought that shop.

“There was a period four or five years ago when people who were ready to retire found it tough to find a buyer,” said Oren J. Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. “But over the past several years membership in the American Bookseller Association has shown moderate growth.”

Nationally, the number of independent bookstores has grown from 1,651 in 2009 to 1,971 this year, according to the association. (Association membership peaked in the mid-90s and hit a low point in 2009.)

In New England, independent bookstores hit a high in the 1980s, when there were about 400, said Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. Today there are about half that many, said Fischer, adding that he is nonetheless “optimistic” about the future of the indie.

Teicher attributes the rebound to the growing buy-local movement, and the increased affordability of technology for even small stores, which has enabled independents to better compete with giants like Amazon.

In the Boston area, the string of four indie bookstore sales followed the closing of a number of beloved stores, including two high-profile losses in 2004 — Harvard Square’s WordsWorth Books and Newbury Street’s Avenue Victor Hugo (which now has an online site).

But in 2008, when Harvard Book Store put out word that it was for sale, Mayersohn realized his lifelong dream of owning a bookstore and bought it. Now he’s trying to out-Amazon Amazon by offering same-day delivery by bicycle, and, thanks to a very cool in-store robot called Paige M. Gutenborg, print-on-demand paperback books.

In 2010, not long after Mayersohn bought his own store, friends from Wellesley learned their town’s bookstore, the Wellesley Booksmith, was for sale. They had long wanted to own a bookstore, so they quizzed Mayersohn on the lifestyle — it’s busy — and bravely plunged in.

Well, most of the way. Gillian Kohli, a former litigator who stopped working to raise the couple’s four children, works in the bookstore, since renamed Wellesley Books, but Bill Kohli is still managing portfolios at Putnam Investments. “He likes his day job,” Gillian said, “And the bookstore does not support our family.”

The following year, another passionate shopper stepped in to save a store he loved. When no other buyer emerged for the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton , Tom Lyons, an insurance-industry consultant, surprised himself by taking on one of the region’s largest bookstores.

“I had no intention of owning a bookstore,” he said, “but I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”

Two years later, Lyons still sounds surprised. “They had no automated inventory,” he said. “Other than looking at the shelves crammed with books, you had no idea what you had.”

As anyone who has been to the old New England Mobile Book Fair may recall, the books were organized by publisher, not category, a system that made browsing a challenge. Lyons is completing the exhausting process of reshelving 1 million books, beefing up the website, and trying to attract shoppers with author events.

On Oct. 19, Bobby Orr is coming to the store to talk about his memoir, “Orr: My Story.” “We’re trying to change with the times,” Lyons said.

Meanwhile, the population of New England bookstore owners is facing an opponent even tougher than Amazon: the clock. Many of the book lovers who opened stores in the 1980s, when they were in their 30s and 40s, and the New England scene was at its peak, are still working their shifts. As Fischer put it: “Do the arithmetic. We’re now in our 60s and 70s.”

Concern about the aging ranks of indie bookstore owners has become so pronounced that at its recent fall meeting, in Providence, the association offered a workshop aimed at helping owners figure out creative ways to sell their stores outright or transition into partial ownership.

“Do you say to your employees, ‘I don’t want to be here everyday, but I don’t want to close the store. Does anyone have a rich uncle?’ ” said Fischer.

But in an encouraging sign, one very successful and, at 42, relatively young person is at least considering opening a bookstore.

Last year, Jeff Kinney, the author of the bestselling “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, and his wife bought a derelict property in Plainville, their hometown, and made plans to build a three-story building on the site. They also took a two-day book store crash course (with Paz & Associates) and are pondering their next move.

The smartest financial decision, Kinney e-mailed the Globe, would be to lease the building to tenants, but even so, they would love to open a bookstore. “We understand that we’ll have to become a destination location in order to create a viable business,” he wrote. “We’re currently looking at ways to do that, and if we feel confident that we can get to a break-even state over five years, we’ll go forward with the plan.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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