BROOKLINE — The Children’s Book Shop, a neighborhood treasure that has delighted young bibliophiles for decades, shuttered its doors Saturday with an emphatic final hurrah as it became yet another casualty of the pandemic’s barrage on local businesses.
The 900-square-foot shop has occupied the same picturesque storefront in Brookline Village since 1977, making it the oldest independent children’s bookstore in Greater Boston. But social distancing wrought unique havoc here: Not only did the shop endure the reduced foot traffic that hit other storefronts in 2020, but its customer base, made up largely of parents and grandparents, was even more reluctant to return until their children could be vaccinated. By the time they came back, it was too late.
“We had a really incredible run,” said Terri Schmitz, who has owned the store since 1985. “I’ve spent 37 years being around the books that I love, getting to know a wonderful community. It’s sad to have to go, but I’m proud of the work we’ve done.”
On Saturday, nationally recognized as Independent Bookstore Day, the shop’s influence in the community was on full display. Once brimming shelves, faded from age, thinned out quickly as longtime customers filled their arms with as many books as they could carry. Children sat on the floor, held tightly by their parents, listening intently to tall tales of fiction. Schmitz exchanged a hug with a man who had grown up patronizing the store.
“Every time I read to my daughter,” he said, “I’ll think of you.”
Peering down at a shelf full of picture books on historical American figures, JoAnn Butler’s eyes brimmed with tears. She was a regular at the shop since she worked at the nearby Brookline Public Library between the early 1980s and 2000, stopping by to pick out books for her children and grandchildren. She had no idea the store was closing until she saw a sign in the storefront while strolling past Saturday afternoon.
“When I saw the sign, my heart broke right there,” said Butler, who lives in Dorchester but visits Brookline often. “It’s one of the last children’s literature shops. You can’t even describe what losing a place like this means.”
She exchanged a long hug with Schmitz before leaving the shop for the last time.
Before the pandemic struck, business here was good, Schmitz said. In a 2010 article, the Globe hailed the shop as “a beacon for young readers (and their teachers and parents). Bright, cheerful, and packed to the gills with new releases and classics.” Generations of parents and children cycled through, enchanted by the personalized touch of Schmitz, who made a regular habit of custom ordering books for any customer who asked.
For some 25 years, the shop sponsored a poetry contest at Brookline Public Schools, displaying the winners in the storefront window for passersby to see.
When the pandemic struck, the store temporarily shuttered, opening its doors again six months later with the help of $30,000 raised through a GoFundMe. But the steady flow of regular customers the store had been used to just never returned, and income was low without a robust online bookselling platform. Eventually, Schmitz said, “I looked at the numbers and it was just too obvious. We couldn’t stay open like this.”
By and large, independent book stores have thrived during the pandemic, pivoting to supplement storefront sales with e-commerce and capitalizing on a renewed interest in reading, said Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Book Sellers Association. Shops that cater to a niche, though, have struggled, she said.
“Independent bookstores are doing better now than they have in a long time,” said Ineson. “But in this age of online retail where you can get anything you want at any time, or in this age of big box retailers where you can make one stop and get everything you need, having a specialty business is challenging in the extreme. The Children’s Book Shop had an extraordinary run, and they were largely beneficiaries of a community that loved what they were doing.”
Indeed, it was the community that for decades propped up this beloved store that mourned its loss on Saturday.
Ann Abrams had been going there to find books since she moved to Brookline Village in 1996. As she perused the shelves Saturday, she lamented the loss of a local gem that offered a personalized touch.
“I always felt that buying hardcover books was an investment for my children and also for our community,” said Abrams. “The intelligence and warmth and friendliness and knowledge of a human being is always better than an algorithm.”
Andrew Brinker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.