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New England Mobile Book Fair’s ultimate suspense story

Bestselling Author of "Rizzoli & Isles", Tess Gerritsen (center) poses with owner, Tom Lyons (left) and Events Manager, Dave Ambler (right) at the New England Book Fair/

Bestselling Author of "Rizzoli & Isles", Tess Gerritsen (center) poses with owner, Tom Lyons (left) and Events Manager, Dave Ambler (right) at the New England Book Fair/

Every week a new chapter is being written in the New England Mobile Book Fair’s story.

And it’s a page turner. The fate of the store hangs in the balance.

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When longtime customer Tom Lyons purchased the Newton Highlands literary landmark in November 2011, he faced three challenges: bringing order to a million-plus books bewilderingly arranged by publisher or, in the case of remainders, seemingly by whim; compiling a computer inventory of the collection; and defying Internet giants that have been stamping out independents and chains alike.

Lyons says he is well on his way to achieving his first two goals, and brimming with ideas for the third. But the suspense builds: Will the red ink recede in time for what one veteran employee calls Mobile Book Fair 2.0 to emerge in its full glory? And can Lyons and his staff generate the buzz needed to pull in enough new customers to keep the business afloat?

Unlike Newtonville Books, now in Newton Centre, and Brookline Booksmith, in the heart of Coolidge Corner, the Mobile Book Fair can’t count on foot traffic. Most customers need a vehicle to seek it out among the discount clothing stores, eye wear shops, and plumbing supply houses that line busy Needham Street.

As recently as 2006, Lyons said, the store was doing $20,000 in sales a day. “They could afford to buy 30 copies of a book,” he said. “They literally had every shelf double stocked with books.”

Lyons, an auditor by training, said by the time he took over, sales were tumbling at a pace of more than 30 percent a month. He’s managed to slow the decline, but still expects to be operating at a loss for the remainder of the year.

Still, he continues to offer mass market paperbacks at a 20 percent discount, with 30 percent off best-selling hardcovers. In the bargain rooms, you might find a Dan Brown thriller for as little as $1.

While he never before ran a bookstore, Lyons is applying 40 years of corporate management experience to identifying ways to streamline costs and make the store both more user- and employee-friendly.

Second career

On any given day, you can find Lyons in the aisles helping a customer find a title or checking to make sure books are properly priced and shelved.

He recalled one woman who wanted to buy a dozen or so children’s books for a party; he found her the same titles at a cut-rate price in the children’s bargain room.

Lyons said he had cut utility bills by several thousand dollars a month by replacing the phone system and installing energy-efficient lighting. More important, he is getting a handle on the inventory of what he estimates to be 200,000 separate titles.

Nearly all of the store’s employees — some of whom have worked there for decades — remained after the change in owners. That testifies to Lyons’s respect for their book smarts, and to their willingness to undergo a crash course in computer programs and juggle multiple tasks in the midst of a literal work in progress.

“We’re basically doing triple the work any small regular bookstore does because we have so many things going on. Once we have it done, it’s going to be so much quicker and smoother,” said Lyons, who at 68 could be pursuing his passions for writing and reading books, rather than spending 55-plus hours a week trying to sell them.

“I could have retired, but I was so concerned that it would go out of business that I grabbed it,” he said of the store, where he had been shopping for more than 30 years. “The jury is still out. . .  I just know there are a lot of people that don’t know we’re here.”

Survival tactics

About half of the independent bookstores in New England 20 years ago have shut their doors, according to Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.

“In terms of the number of titles and books and sheer square footage, the N.E. Mobile Book Fair has to be one of the five largest bookstores in New England,” Fischer wrote in an e-mail. “Just walking in their front door is a staggering sight!”

And reorganizing the shelves has been a staggering task.

After more than a year’s effort, books from only a few publishers, including Penguin, still need to be reorganized. The first step is to weed out excess copies and titles that are out of print. Extras of books still in print can be returned to the publisher for full credit, minus shipping costs. Out-of-print books are destined for the bargain shelves unless an eagle-eyed staffer recognizes a rarity that may be fetching multiple times its cover price on Internet auction and book sites.

Looking for gems

As employees reorganize the bargain rooms, they keep an eye out for dusty gems to post on Amazon Marketplace. In a sense, they’re in a race with savvy customers who have been spotted combing the shelves in consultation with a smartphone, cherry-picking books that they find on the Internet selling for as much as $200 or $300. “When that happens we ask them politely if they want to buy a book, buy it, but shut the phone off,” Lyons said.

Meanwhile, employees are using portable scanners to inventory the collection; older books without bar codes must be manually punched in.

Lyons said he aims to have the store’s inventory completed by the end of the summer.

Thinking spatially

Besides reshuffling the books, Lyons is reorganizing the store. He has stocked the prime space along its front wall with Globe and New York Times bestsellers. Employees keep abreast of authors on NPR talk shows and give prominent display to their books. As in the past, there are boxes of popular romances, mysteries, and thrillers, as well as more than 30 shelves of poetry books.

Eventually, the large checkout area by the front door will be shifted to free up space for seasonal displays and other promotions. Some bookcases have been put on wheels so that they can be moved out of the way to accommodate audiences for author appearances, often held on Wednesday nights.

Even with seating for 70, some fans were standing when legendary Boston Bruin Derek Sanderson appeared to promote his book, “Crossing the Line,” Lyons said. He plans to spruce up a large bargain room to accommodate 200 chairs once bookshelves are rolled out of the way.

On the other side of the building, he wants to carpet a section of the children’s room for family events.

In December, the store played host to 41 local mystery authors. It’s also held writing and poetry workshops, and book-related events focused on gardening, cooking and local artists.

Online offerings

The store is enlarging its presence on the Internet, selling books and e-books on its website (www.nebookfair.com), posting book reviews and event photos on its Facebook page, and e-mailing a weekly newsletter. Ultimately, Lyons plans to have the store’s entire inventory regularly updated online. In addition, customers would be able to use in-store terminals to find the location of books. Someday, Lyons hopes to have a GPS app for navigating the sprawling store.

The Mobile Book Fair is also aggressively pursuing deals with schools, libraries, adult education programs, and religious groups; inviting student groups in to have the run of the store, with a portion of their purchases benefiting their schools; and putting up booths at conventions, such as a recent Manga comics expo.

Lyons has brought his two children, both in their 30s, into the business: son Adam is in charge of operations, overseeing the massive book move; and daughter Amanda is manager of accounting.

Amanda recalled her reaction to her father’s decision to buy the store: “I said, ‘What?’ ”

She said after she questioned him about the financials, he persuaded her to leave her full-time job at PetSmart (she still works there Sundays, escaping spread sheets to comfort guests at a pet hotel).

Lyons said before the purchase, he consulted with other bookstores and visited the Book Fair “70 to 80 times” to observe the staff and customers. One rainy day, he stopped by to see where the roof leaked. “I knew it would take an enormous amount of effort,” he said of revamping the business.

The building, which once housed a tennis racket manufacturer, is still owned by the Strymish family, which first operated the store out of West Roxbury more than a half-century ago.

Lyons said he was told that the business, and its name, were bought from a woman who was selling books from the back of a car.

Staying committed

While revamping the Book Fair “has been more far more exasperating than it should have been, I still believe it needs to be saved,” Lyons said. “I just have to have customers in here who understand that.”

He recalled one man who was upset that the Book Fair wouldn’t match Costco’s price on a cookbook. “I explained to the guy that I’ve got 35 of his friends and neighbors working here, and I have this huge overhead that I have to pay for. There’s no way I can compete with Costco, which can make a penny on each book.”

Noting the precariousness of bookstores like his, Lyons asked the man to imagine a scenario where he’s looking for a good deal on a book that Costco doesn’t carry. “You’re going to come here one day,” Lyons told him, “and we’re not going to be here.”

But if Lyons succeeds with his ambitious plans, he hopes to be able to turn a thriving business over to his children. And don’t worry about the place losing the warehouse ambience that its fervent fan base has come to cherish.

“We want it to have the same flavor and same aura and awe when you come in,” Lyons said. “We just want you to know where the books are.”

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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