In the window of 71 Charles St. hangs a sign announcing the impending arrival of Beacon Hill Books & Cafe, with a drawing of a bushy, black-and-white squirrel in one corner.
“I’m creating a narrative about a squirrel that lives in the bookstore,” said Beacon Hill Books owner Melissa Fetter. “At night, the squirrel reads the children’s books, and then leaves an acorn on the spine of a book that’s recommended — that will be the book we feature the next day in the story hour.”
This sense of whimsy is the throughline of Beacon Hill Books, a general interest bookstore slated to open its doors in spring 2022. Fetter envisions floor-to-ceiling bookcases on the second and third floors; the fourth floor will be dedicated entirely to children’s books, with a model train set snaking in and out of the walls.
“You have to give people a reason to be in the space,” said Fetter, a member of the WBUR Board of Directors and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Board of Trustees. “You have to want them to be there and that’s what gets them coming back.”
She plans for ample seating, fireplaces on every floor, and author events and other programming. A cafe — helmed by chef Colleen Suhanosky of Brookline’s Rifrullo — will take over the first floor, and will boast garden benches, English tea in the winter months, and “the best blueberry muffin you’ve ever had,” Fetter said.
“The aesthetics of the space are paramount,” she said. “Yes, it’s all about books at the end of the day, but I want to put those books in a package that’s irresistible.”
Fetter, who lived in Boston in the 1980s and returned two years ago with her husband, said she has no background in bookselling, but was keenly aware of the lack of a bookstore in the neighborhood.
Fetter is using the insights of a Harvard Business School white paper on what boosts an independent bookstore’s success in the age of Amazon: a strong promotion of community, specialized curation, and the ability to be a convening space.
“Bookstores really become kind of the heartbeat of community,” Fetter said.
Beacon Hill Books will take over the storefront previously held by the The Hungry I restaurant, which had been open since 1981 and was listed for sale in 2018 for a whopping $4 million, according to Boston Magazine.
Fetter, who bought the property in September 2019, had hoped to open the bookstore by fall 2020, a plan stymied by the pandemic. She tapped Pauli and Uribe Architects to overhaul the space, and they are now in the process of bringing the building up to code, making it ADA accessible, and installing an elevator.
“We’ve literally taken the whole thing apart,” Fetter said in an interview. “Doing the renovation, doing it right, and having it really speak to the original period and character of Beacon Hill is important to me.”
Irene MacDonald, Beacon Hill Books’ general manager, has a background in law and will take on the position full time in September For now, she’s working on tote bags.
“I’m so excited to be able to draw people to some books that they may not know are out there,” MacDonald said. “That’s something Melissa and I really want to cultivate in the store, is moments of discovery.”
Charles Street has seen significant turnover since the pandemic began, according to Ford Realty, with a number of established businesses shutting their doors. In decades past, the brick-lined street has been home to The Book Store and a Lauriat’s bookstore.
“My hope is that if you were to be dropped into it once it’s all done, you would think, ‘Oh, this has been here for decades, right?” Fetter said. “It’s a labor of love. But we’re counting on the fact that the community is going to respond in turn and ensure that it’s a success.”