Shelf Space: Q&A with David Sandberg at Porter Square Books

David Sandberg of Porter Square Books.

Porter Square Books opened in 2004 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and immediately fostered intense loyalty among their customers. Two of those customers, married couple Dina Mardell and David Sandberg, bought the general bookstore in 2013 and continued Porter Square’s formula for success—encouraging rampant consumption of books and coffee. Here, Sandberg talks about “Puff the Magic Dragon,” H Is for Hawk, and the ongoing “shop local” movement.

If Porter Square were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?

Our icons are our local authors. We are incredibly lucky to be in an active community of novelists, poets, academics, essayists, and other literati. We worship them—or at least we appreciate them. Our tenets would be 1. Trust your booksellers, 2. Engage in your community, and 3. Check out the socks.

Which was your favorite event and why?

Peter Yarrow and Noel (Paul) Stookey. It’s about as many people as we’ve ever crammed into the store, and Peter and Paul brought their guitars and played and talked and sang. It was the music we had all grown up with, and to have them talk about their years together, about Mary and politics and what “Puff the Magic Dragon” was really about—magical. For weeks afterward, people who had been at the event came up to me and told me it was the best thing they had ever been to in a bookstore.

What trends are you noticing among your customers?

They’re buying more sidelines and more kids’ books. Over the years, our customer base has grown broader, not just in numbers, but in the diversity of their interests. The fact that a book classified in the Nature section (H Is for Hawk) or a history of ancient Rome (SPQR) are on the bestseller list shows how readers have branched out. In our store specifically, we see more people buying short stories than I think is typical. Social media has become a bigger driver in event attendance and in generating interest in the store generally (and in our dog, specifically).

Last year, for the first time since 2007, bookstores’ sales rose. To what do you attribute the success of brick-and-mortar bookstores?

At least in our case, I’d attribute it to a few things. First, a very strong sense of community—the bookstore is a community hangout spot, and everyone knows that if they want it to stay there they have to support it. Second, our local communities (Cambridge and Somerville) have strong “shop local” awareness. Third, sad to say, many of the bookstores in surrounding communities and in Cambridge itself have closed over the last nine years, and so we have become the “local-est” bookstore for people who live in those towns.

What are some of your top current handsells? 

Shelf_PorterStacy Schiff’s The Witches, Dan Ephron’s Killing a King, Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family. A few that are a couple of years older—Lily King’s Euphoria (since the day it was published), Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill.

What is your ideal busman’s holiday? 

To go to bookstores that have bars and serve beer. I wish we could do that here.

Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor.


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