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Crazy? The Man Bought a Bookstore

MET alum new owner of New England Mobile Book Fair

For the past year, Tom Lyons has been planning with the precision of a field general, hiring a consultant and holding weekly meetings. The issue? How to move and recategorize more than a million books. Lyons describes his project as “organized chaos.”

Last November, the former insurance executive bought New England Mobile Book Fair (NEMBF), the largest independent bookstore in New England. From the parking lot, the squat cinderblock building nestled in a commercial strip in Newton Highlands, looks unremarkable. But step inside to a bibliophile’s dream. Its 32,000 square feet (more warehouse than shop around the corner) is piled floor to ceiling with books. Classics. Best sellers. Remainders and picture books. NEMBF, which is neither mobile nor a fair, is so named because the first lot of books was bought from a woman who sold books out of her car at school book fairs. With the books came the name, and it stayed. More than half a century later, the store still offers discounts to schools and libraries, and the less than accurate name has long been just one of the store’s endearing peculiarities. Until recently, all of the books (yes, one million plus) were arranged by publisher rather than by genre, as is done in the vast majority of bookstores.

When he bought the store a year ago, Lyons (MET’76) knew that he’d have to make changes: starting with moving and reshelving miles of books. “I knew that we had to revamp the store in terms of putting the books by category,” says Lyons, recalling that because of the venerable store’s idiosyncratic filing system, last Christmas 30 employees were running in 30 different directions to help customers find a book.

“We’ve had to create staging areas where we could sort the books into categories: first, fiction versus nonfiction, and then breaking out major areas of fiction, such as mysteries,” says Lyons. Nonfiction had many smaller categories—biography, history, poetry, gardening, art and photography, among others. And that’s meant many of the books had to be moved more than once. “Every action created a reaction, so you move something and then something else is messed up,” Lyons says.

Diane Thomson, cookbook buyer, New England Mobile Book Fair

Cookbook buyer Diane Thomson (MET’83).

Now, a website updated each night helps staff stay on top of what’s been moved where. With nearly 80 percent of the stock reorganized by category, Lyons is reaching out to customers to volunteer with alphabetizing the books. He predicts they’ll be done in time for the holiday rush.

An unlikely owner

Now 67, Lyons started his latest business venture at an age when many of his colleagues have retired.

He was working in the insurance industry when he enrolled at Metropolitan College in the early 1970s. He attended BU at night, working full-time during the day for the New England Bank Card Association, an early precursor to MasterCard. By the time he was a junior, he was head of audit for the company.

Lyons remembers his BU years as “an amazing time. I would go to the library as soon as I got out of class and stay until it closed at 11 p.m., because that was the only way I could keep up with my studies. And then on Saturdays, I would go to the library or I went to the office and worked all day.” Friday nights, he and his wife took a silversmithing course. “I’d pound out the frustrations of the week,” says Lyons.

What followed were decades working for companies like AIG, Wang, and Oracle, where Lyons directed marketing for insurance. He later became an independent business consultant, advising insurance companies.

A longtime NEMBF patron, Lyons knew the store was for sale. In June 2011, he casually asked a clerk whether it had been sold and was told that the owners were still looking for a buyer. Lyons couldn’t get the place out of his head.

“It had been on the market for nine months and hadn’t sold and that concerned me,” says Lyons, dressed in his trademark khakis and button-down shirt. “This place was an institution and many of the other independent bookstores in the area had disappeared. I felt that it needed to be saved.”

New England Mobile Book Fair

Never judge a book by its cover: New England Mobile Book Fair’s unassuming cinderblock exterior leads into a bibliophile's dream.

During the five months of negotiating the sale (the founding family still owns the building), Lyons estimates he stopped by 60 to 70 times to observe not just the staff, but the patrons. “I even ran over one day in a rainstorm so I could see where the leaks were in the roof,” he says.

While he knew nothing about selling books, Lyons knew what it takes to run a successful business. “In today’s environment, you’ve got to run a bookstore as a business,” he says. “All the independents I’ve talked to have said, ‘Yes, we had to learn to focus on it as a business as opposed to a bookstore. You have to pay attention to the bottom line—it’s dollars and cents now.’ You have to buy books far more carefully. And to me that’s the basic difference: being a great book seller, but not a good accountant or businessperson isn’t enough anymore.”

Lyons, is well aware of the challenges he faces. Across the country, venerable indies such as Wordsworth, in Cambridge, Dutton’s Brentwood Books, in Los Angeles, and Gotham Book Mart and Coliseum Books, in New York, have been shuttered, in large part because of the steeply discounted prices offered by Amazon and Walmart and the advent of e-readers. “You go through Harvard Square, and half of the independent bookstores that were there 10 years ago are gone,” Lyons notes.

But he points to an optimistic trend during the last couple of years. The American Booksellers Association, the national trade group for independent bookstores, reported a 7 percent growth in 2010 and 100 new members in the first half of 2011. “I just felt, yes, I can do this,” says Lyons. “And that’s due in no small part to the marketing and management courses that I took at BU and the number of different corporations—large and small—that I worked on. I had all that bank of knowledge behind me.”

He predicts NEMBF will begin turning a profit next year.

Weighing the need for change, carefully

Most mornings Lyons is at his computer by 6 a.m. and at the store by 10. Whenever possible, he’s out on the floor. “I love meeting the customers, talking to them. I get so many ideas from my customers,” he says. “One out of 10 tells me, ‘Don’t change a thing,’ and that cuts me short because I’ve got to survive. But 9 out of 10 say, ‘Thank God, I’m glad it’s being changed.’” Many customers want to meet him simply to thank him for saving the store.

He knows that changes have to be made carefully, so as not to alienate his loyal customer base. “The big fun we’re having in making all these moves is the challenge of doing it without upsetting the apple cart and destroying what we’ve got,” he says.

Some of the store’s numerous recent changes are visible to customers, some are not. An automated inventory system, requiring a dozen new computers, should make it more efficient and enhance its already legendary customer service. Better lighting resulted with the replacement of some 300 light fixtures, and an antiquated phone system was swapped out for one more efficient. Lyons estimates that those changes will save the store about $8,000 a month. Gift certificates, previously written by hand, have been replaced by electronic gift cards. And a newly designed website allows customers to order books online for the first time. In the coming weeks, e-books can be ordered online as well, and e-readers manufactured by Kobo.

Lyons estimates that the store has increased merchandise by 200 percent in the last year, which is critical to the success of an independent bookstore. “When Amazon comes in and cuts your margins dramatically, when e-books are available and cut your margins even further,” Lyons says, “your sales go down and you have to start merchandizing or expand your merchandizing.”

NEMBF has also launched an ambitious series of author readings, workshops, and special events, featuring local experts and authors who provide demonstrations. In early December the store will host a Gala Mystery Night, drawing dozens of mystery writers, including Hank Phillippi Ryan, Linda Barnes (CFA’71), Hallie Ephron, and, Lyons hopes, Dennis Lehane. The store also plans to hold Hanukkah and Christmas events for kids during the holiday season.

What hasn’t changed, says Lyons, is the store’s customer service—what he calls its secret weapon. Each of the nearly three dozen employees stayed on after he bought the place. “I love books, but I don’t know books the way they do,” Lyons says of his staff.

Tom Lyons, Adam Lyons, Amanda Lyons, New England Mobile Book Fair

Lyons with his son, Adam, and daughter, Amanda.

Lyons has turned NEMBF into a family affair. His daughter Amanda, 33, is manager of accounting and son Adam, 32, came on board in April as operations manager. Asked what it’s like to work for his father, Adam says with a laugh, “It’s a lot like being a teenager again. Only now he controls my income, benefits, and isn’t required by law to take care of me.” He acknowledges being “surprised to realize that I feel closer to him as a father than I have ever felt.” Even when they disagree about business, Adam says that “as soon as the day is over, he’s my dad again, and we’ve learned something new about one another.”

The one regret Lyons harbors is that his own writing has had to take a backseat. He had some poems published in a poetry magazine several decades ago, but in recent years has turned to writing books—a completed western and two unfinished mysteries. “The creative process has been focused on the store and its survival,” he says. But he’s promised himself that after the holidays, he’ll find time to write every day. Until then, there is that reorganization to complete before Thanksgiving.

“People ask me, ‘Are you having fun?’ Yes, I am having a ball,” says Lyons. “It’s a hell of a ride. It really is.”

The New England Mobile Book Fair is at 82 Needham St., Newton Highlands; phone: 617-964-7440; hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.to 5 p.m.

John O'Rourke, Editor of BU Today at Boston University
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

17 Comments on Crazy? The Man Bought a Bookstore

  • Francie King on 11.08.2012 at 8:02 am

    Terrific story — I love this guy. Love the place too. Long live the independent bookseller!!

  • Robin B. on 11.08.2012 at 9:54 am

    I used to get gift certificates every year to the NEMBF for my birthday. I remember as a kid thinking that the warehouse was so huge. Returning as an adult it didn’t seem all that overwhelming, but the selection (including a huge bargain area) and quirky environment are great, nonetheless.

  • Edi on 11.08.2012 at 9:56 am

    This is great news. I only visited this store once because it is not near where I live. I liked its huge selection but found the arrangement by publisher very off-putting. Will definitely check it out again both online and in person. Good luck to the entire Lyons family in their new venture.

  • Anne on 11.08.2012 at 11:56 am

    I grew up in Needham and remember visiting this fabulous bookstore often. Thank you for keeping it alive!

    I will be sure to vist on my next visit.

    Best wishes

  • PK on 11.08.2012 at 3:21 pm

    Seconded, Robin! I loved going there as a kid, and from the picture it appears to be smaller than I remember (but obviously still sizeable enough to fit a million books). I also could have sworn the comic books/graphic novels, at least, were all in one section. Anyway, so glad Mr. Lyons has purchased and is even improving this business. Looking forward to getting back there soon!

  • Matthew Frederick on 11.08.2012 at 4:09 pm

    This is an excellent bookstore with helpful staff, but it has suffered for years, IMHO, from its idiosyncratic ways. Reshelving the books by genre is an excellent start. But I urge the new owner to address the fact that the store is misunderstood or ignored by large segments of the shopping public due to its odd name and bargain basement exterior appearance. Thousands of would-be shoppers bypass it daily (it is located on one of the most heavily trafficked local roads in the Boston area), without realizing it is a full service store carrying new books. Even among those who know this, the store still doesn’t fully “register.” I take pains to visit indy bookstores, but NEMBF is almost never on my radar of Boston area bookstores during my 8 to 10 visits to the area each year. Heck, I lived a few miles from the store for two decades, and even then I forgot it existed… I am far more inclined to remember and visit other bookstores nearby–Newtonville Books, the B&N, and the Borders when it was still in business. Here’s hoping the new owner can do something about this.

  • SG on 11.08.2012 at 4:25 pm

    I was breathless with excitement when I went here for the first time a few months back, a couple of months after coming to Boston. The only hard part is that it’s not exactly at a T sop, but it’s a pleasant walk from Newton Highlands. The staff is extremely helpful and the girl at the till had very interesting observations on one of the books I bought the first time I went there. Plus hardcovers are 30% off and paperbacks are 20% off. Amazon is roughly 1/3 off; so if you value the pleasant browsing experience among stacks and stacks of books this is the place for you.

  • Lynn L. on 11.21.2012 at 10:20 am

    This is the best news since Fifty Shades single-handedly saved the paper book business. I am a buyer for a distributor and I am watching my livelihood disappear before my eyes. There are box bins next to the Salvation Army dumpsters! Please! Mr. Lyons, thank you for saving one of the best bookstores in Mass. and thank you for putting them in categories. I can’t wait to come back. Amazon can go fly a kite.

  • LO on 11.28.2012 at 1:08 pm

    I’ve never even heard of this place, but it reminds me of a bookstore in St. Petersburg Florida called Haslam’s Book Store. http://www.haslams.com/index.shtml
    Only 300,000 books, but I sure had fun exploring the store and shipping a box of books home to Boston!

  • Eraj on 12.10.2012 at 2:27 pm

    Thumbs up! That is an amazing example of entrepreneurship and the fact that age does not matter, if you really willing to roll up your sleeve and follow your heart and get the job done! Wish you great sales and time success in your venture. Hopefully, I will visit you soon.

  • Imadiel on 12.15.2012 at 9:12 pm

    I have loved coming to this bookstore from the first day I discovered it. Someone told me about it and I was “blown away.” It became my special place so to speak to make discoveries, compare books, “mind travel”, enjoy discounted books and buy some for others; I’ld spent hours. Some 14 years later I still don’t know all the shelves. You can’t really buy art books on the internet, you can’t see the quality of the paper and of the reproductions. You can’t buy a kid’s book on the internet, you’ve got to have it in your hand and feel it, size it. I use my library all the time, and when restless I head down to the Bookfair. So thank you Mr. Lyon for rescuing “my bookstore” – just one thing, don’t get it “too” organized! I did not mind at all the books organized by publisher because once you knew a publisher it was actually fun to see what THEY published and I would often go to these isles and find excellent books I would not have thought of looking up. To me, NOT knowing what I wanted, then finding something special was an incentive for coming to the bookstore. I agree with Frederick that many people still have not registered how special this bookstore is because of its name and its blank facade. Definitely, something needs to be done about the facade. I wish you all the luck, down to the last lucky penny.

  • Mary merriam on 12.16.2012 at 7:34 am

    NEMBF is just like a candy store! It is such fun to walk through this wonderful maze of books of every type. Love live the book store-

  • Ife Oshun (@IfeOshun) on 12.25.2012 at 2:27 pm

    Thank you Mr. Lyons! My eight-year old is now a huge fan of the store, and I am an author. Note: I bought a gift card for the holiday but had to do it over the phone and pick up at the store once we visit. No biggie; just printed my own fun little card at home. Finally, three more words for you, sir: Print On Demand.

  • Richard Wright on 12.26.2012 at 8:51 am

    Sorting by publisher is the only thing I ever found wrong with this book shop. Otherwise, it was a total treasure. Bargains were everywhere, and when you read as many books as I do, it’s important to watch the budget. I didn’t include the Bookfair in my new book, A Vacationer’s Guide to Rural New England Bookstores, because it’s not in a rural area. But, it meets every other criteria I set for a great bookshop. And congratulations to the new owner; I’m sure the shop will be even better now.

  • Jean Allison on 02.17.2013 at 7:10 am

    I am a NEMBF fan and was worried when I heard it was for sale. Thank you for being business savvy and a book lover as well! This store feels like a piece of history and a gem in today’s “big box” world. May the force be with you!

    • Tom Lyons on 03.25.2013 at 2:54 pm

      Thank you Jean and thank you all for your positive comments, encouragements and suggestions. We at the Book Fair are working hard to address all issues, expand the word about this treasure trove and make the shopping experience better. Our weekly author series is picking up steam and getting more people into the store.

  • Linda M. Michaels on 08.11.2014 at 5:45 pm

    Thank you Mr Lyons for stepping up to plate to save a much loved independent bookstore. Even the big bookstores (Borders) are falling down. While I like the ease of eBooks I don’t love using a tablet. I love the smell of a small bookstore. I love the feel of book covers and the book themselves. I love the feel and sound of turning book pages. You can actually curl up with a book. Tablet: not so much. I know that there are other crazy book lovers like myself out there. Thanks again Mr Lyons for caring about us.

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