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New owner of iconic Newton bookstore bullish on the future

Believes story isn’t over for his industry

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/file 2010

Readers can find everything from forgotten children’s classics to bestsellers at the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton.

NEWTON - Tom Lyons would like everyone to know that reports of the printed book’s demise are greatly exaggerated. As the new owner of New England Mobile Book Fair, he’s banking on it.

“Pretty much everybody I talk to loves books and reads books and wants their children to feel and put their hands on a book,’’ said Lyons, who took the helm of the region’s largest independent bookseller this week.

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Lyons bought the 54-year-old bookstore - where readers can find everything from forgotten children’s classics to bestsellers in its rambling Needham Street warehouse - from the Strymish family, which put it up for sale a year ago.

The terms of the deal, brokered by Ridge Hill Partners Inc. of Needham, were not released.

“Tom impressed each of us with his commitment and passion for the Book Fair, as well as his respect for my family’s legacy,’’ Jon Strymish, whose family founded the business, said in a prepared statement announcing the sale. “We wish him success as he guides the Book Fair into the future.’’

Lyons, 66, of Brookline, spent his career in the insurance industry and more recently as an independent management consultant. He has also written a Western novel, which he’s hoping to publish, and is working on a couple of mysteries.

He understands the importance of moving the business forward, while preserving what its loyal clientele love about the place.

“We’ve got to do this carefully,’’ he said in an interview yesterday. “Essentially what I want to do is keep the charm.’’

He’s kicking off the important holiday shopping season by stocking up on bestsellers and children’s books, adding some specialty items, and beefing up the store’s renowned remainder section, where publishers’ overstock is sold at steeply discounted prices.

Next year, he said, other changes will slowly unfold. Lyons wants to sponsor author events at the store, create a more family-friendly children’s section, and invite the area’s professors and professionals to give advice on what specialty books to sell. He also plans to computerize the inventory.

And he plans to reorganize the volumes by genre instead of by publisher. “I’ve got to,’’ he said. “I have a difficult time browsing for a mystery, to go by publisher by publisher by publisher.’’

But it’s no easy task to reorganize more than a million books, so “it’s going to take time,’’ Lyons said. And he’ll ask patrons for their opinions along the way.

“As people come in they’ll see gradual changes - hopefully they’ll see them as improvements,’’ he said. “Bookshelves will be moved around. We want a place where children can have story reading times and events.’’

So what drew him to such a challenge, at a time when some of the country’s largest book chains are closing stores?

“I’ve been coming to the Book Fair forever,’’ he said. “I’ve always found it intriguing, and just a lot of fun. I think it needs to be here . . . There are people who come from overseas every summer just to shop here. I didn’t want to see this disappear.’’

While much of the book industry suffers, Lyons said, independent bookstores have seen their business improve over the past year.

Nancy Felton, co-owner of Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, was also optimistic yesterday about the future of independent bookstores in the area.

She said customer traffic at her shop has remained steady in the last year. “I wouldn’t say we’ve seen an increase,’’ said Felton, who also serves on the board of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.

Felton said she thinks that independent bookstores can survive in the digital age because they have a variety of titles, knowledgeable staffs, and a community atmosphere.

She said that Broadside and other independent stores have also begun selling e-books on their websites. “It’s not a significant part of our business now, but we thought that it was really important to have it in place because we think it will grow,’’ Felton said.

Lyons plans to sell e-books as well, though like Felton he believes hard copies are far from extinct.

“I stare at a computer all day as a consultant,’’ he said. “I don’t want to stare at one at night. I think a lot of people feel that way.’’

While many adults may agree with Lyons, many others are becoming e-reader converts, according to a survey published in June by the Pew Research Center.

According to the survey, the percentage of American adults who owned an e-reader jumped from 6 percent to 12 percent between November 2010 and May 2011. The survey polled 2,277 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.

But while e-books may be surging in popularity, Rob Solomon of Newton said last night in the Mobile Book Fair that he prefers to read hard copies. He said he will probably return to the store in the near future.

“There are knowledgeable people here that are really enthusiastic,’’ Solomon said. “Compared to buying online, their prices are cheaper and they have a very good selection.’’

Lynn Hunter of Wellesley also gave the store’s selection high marks.

“I’m just really happy the store will still be around,’’ she said. “There aren’t many bookstores like this left. It’s a real treasure trove.’’

Leslie Anderson can be reached at landerson@globe.com; Travis Andersen at tandersen@globe.com.
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