Newtonville Books captures the community

by Molly Johnson & Feiya Wang, Features Editor, Features Reporter
graphic by Julie Wang

The small bookstore on Langley Road is an island in America’s current storm of chain retailers and online stores. Since 1998, local book lovers have come to Newtonville Books for a quiet spot to read, opportunities to learn and its community oriented atmosphere.

Owners Mary Cotton and her husband Jaime Clarke bought the store in 2007 and have been managing it since. 

Cotton said that competition with larger non-independent businesses where customers can purchase books online, such as Amazon, has become a major challenge for the bookstore.  

“We’re a small bookstore where we do have a lot of things, but not everything, and so we have to try and make sure our place is pleasant enough or we’re giving people something they can’t get online,” she said.

Staff member Julia Woodward said that the bookstore has a much more personal atmosphere than her previous job in commercial retail.

“Independent places feel a lot more collaborative and based on people’s ideas and realities rather than something handed down from a corporate overlord,” Woodward said.

Woodward said that she and her colleagues typically have pleasant experiences while assisting customers, whether it be finding new publications, recommending books and genres or ringing up purchases. She said she especially enjoys her interactions with teachers who visit the store, due to her previous experience teaching at a high school.

“[Teachers] always talk about books and teaching and what they’re going to be reading with their classes. I love to meet all of the teachers,” she said.

For students like Woodward and her colleague Julio Baez, the bookstore serves as both a fun part-time job and a connection to the local community. Baez said that he enjoys the atmosphere in bookstores.

“I just thought if I was going to look for a job that I would probably start in a bookstore just to be around a bunch of books all the time,” he said. “Bookstores give off a really good vibe.”

After closing for nearly two years due to the pandemic, the store is still adjusting to a new normal. To keep up with the changing circumstances, Newtonville Books has adapted to the needs of customers, Cotton said. In addition to a morning mask mandate, which gives elderly and immunocompromised customers a reliable time to shop safely, the bookstore began selling books online last year.

“[The online store] was new for us, and we mostly did that because of COVID-19 and so a lot of people didn’t want to come into the stores,” she said. “We’re always trying different things.”

Additionally, COVID-19 meant fewer and less frequent author events, which advertise the bookstore and enable customers to connect with authors and build community.

“This is what you can get when you come here. You can have this community, someone presenting something to you about something you didn’t know about and something thoughtful that you can then think about, and maybe meet new people and talk about it,” said Cotton.

The value of such educational opportunities is immense for customers like Yusuf Nasrullah, who said he missed attending author events and readings in the store when it closed.

Nasrullah said that he especially enjoys attending author events, as they allow him to get his first-edition books signed and to learn from the writers.

“Because [an author’s] books are complex and get me thinking, I love the ability to ask them a question in person and see their process in writing. I’m always interested by the spark and what exactly leads them to come up with a certain premise,” Nasrullah said.

In addition to hosting these events, Cotton also creates a welcoming environment in her store by providing a diverse selection of books. She said that she always thinks about underrepresentation when stocking the shelves.

Nasrullah said that he appreciates the diverse content and interactive opportunities the bookstore provides.

“[Newtonville Books] covers a lot of different perspectives, nationalities, sexualities, religions, belief systems and certainly a lot of diversity in thought as well,” he said. “That’s the magic of books: they help us relate to the world.”