David Sandberg and his wife, Dina Mardell, own Cambridge, Massachusetts’ community bookstore Porter Square Books, along with nine of the store’s employees. We spoke with David about bookstore ownership as a form of community stewardship, how he views bookselling as a vital ecosystem, and the measured decision to sell part of Porter Square to the booksellers who work there.
Tell us about Porter Square Books.
It’s a community bookstore, and we have lots of regular customers. There’s a café in the store, so it’s a place where people come to spend time. We have a lot of events, probably about 200 a year, and a great number are with local authors, so when people from the community have new books out, they usually come to Porter Square. We have a really loyal, involved customer base, and people think of it as a community resource.
I think that’s a thing that makes it different from a lot of bookstores: people come to Porter Square because they just want to go hang out. They’re often not even coming to buy a book, but it’s a place where they want to meet up with people. I’d say it’s a real community place.
What kinds of events do you do with the community?
Most of our events are author events, and they’re all over the map. We definitely have become a place where, at least for local young adult authors—and there’s a real community here in Boston—it’s become a place where they launch their books. We have a lot of local nonfiction authors, sometimes academics associated with local colleges and universities, and we do a lot of poetry.
From time to time, we’ll do events with more well-known authors, where people outside of our regular community scope will come. Recently, we had an event with someone who’s not famous but who had really mobilized his crowd. His name is James Sebenius; he’s also a very dear friend of mine, and there were well over 100 people at his event. It’s a new book about Henry Kissinger, Kissinger the Negotiator. He made sure everyone he knew was there.
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You left a job at Google when you bought Porter Square, right? How did you decide to make the shift to bookselling?
The story’s a little bit more involved. I’m a lawyer by profession. I’d been general counsel of a company that wrote software for the airline industry for about 15 years. We sold that company to Google, so I started working for Google because they bought my company. I was doing business development for them, so my job was basically traveling all over the world and working with different airlines. I was doing an obscene amount of traveling, and it was an inflection point in our lives. Our last kid was going off to college, and my wife had been teaching preschool for a long time, so we were both thinking about doing something different. And we read in the paper that the owners at Porter Square Books, our local bookstore we already knew well, were going to retire and were selling the bookstore. So both of us thought, “This will be a really cool next thing to do.” I guess it’s sort of a midlife crisis move!
A good one, though!
It was very good. But it wasn’t as though we’d really given any thought to the idea of owning a bookstore. If someone had said to me, “What are the things you’d really like to do in your life?”, owning a bookstore wouldn’t have been in the top 500. It just never occurred to me. But once this idea was presented—here’s our bookstore, and it’s our local—at that point, it was obvious that it’d be a really cool thing to do.
What do you love about bookselling now?
I love the relationship to my community that I now have. My wife and I have lived in this community for 30-ish years, so we know a lot of people. And now I get to relate to them as a bookseller because people I know come in the door all the time. I enjoy the fact that people consider us as a community resource. So it’s not just a business where you’re coming in and buying widgets from us, it’s something that people see as important to the community, and it’s enjoyable to take on that role.
As someone who’s always been a reader, I love the relationship that I now get to have with books and authors. I get to meet authors all the time. I’m spending all my time talking about, or handling, or reading books, so it’s much more fun than any other single object you could focus your efforts on. When we bought the store, my wife bought me a shirt that said “Authors are my rockstars,” and it’s kind of true. Those are the people I get starry-eyed around, and I love the fact that I can hobnob with them.
What was one of the biggest surprises you encountered once you bought the bookstore?
I was surprised at how collegial the business is. I would’ve thought that different stores in the same geographical area—in our case, Harvard Bookstore is a mile up the road—would have been arch-competitors. Having spent years in the software industry, if you had a great idea of how to sell more, you would never go to a conference, sit with all your competitors and say, “Let me tell you about this cool thing we’ve done; you guys should do it, too.” Whereas in the book business, the booksellers see themselves as an ecosystem, and the goal is to strengthen that ecosystem—to make all stores better. Whether it’s sharing ideas or collaborating on projects, we do things that bring us into contact with the other Boston and New England bookstores, but it’s a very cooperative feeling, not a competitive one.
A couple of things cause that. By far, the biggest one is that we have a very big common enemy, and our common cause is stronger than any differences among us. I think part of it comes from being part of an industry that’s been really battered. Over a 10- or 15-year period, I don’t know the percentage, but I think something north of half of the bookstores in the United States closed. There’s this mentality that the ones who survived have to stick together because our industry is under intense pressure. Finally, the statistics just bear it out: when individual stores do better, the whole industry is healthier. There’s something to be gained from making sure that every store is as successful as it can be, not thinking that their success might come at the expense of yours.
Last summer, close friends of ours opened a bookstore in Belmont, the next town over from Cambridge, and we helped them open it. Our buyers helped them do their buying. We bequeathed them one of our most terrific employees, who’s now their manager. They’re two or three miles from us physically, but they’re one town over, clearly drawing on the same community in terms of their customer base, and since they opened, our sales are higher. Raising the profile of independent bookstores makes people that much more aware of the importance of shopping at local indies. We added one more to the mix, and it wasn’t like one slice of the pie got taken away; the pie just got bigger.
Speaking of sharing pies, Porter Square Books is partially employee-owned. How did you make the decision to sell part of the store to employees, and how does that work?
We’d been thinking about it, not right when we bought the store in 2013, but reasonably soon after that. Within a year or two, we recognized that neither of our children is going to own the bookstore. We’re both in our late fifties, so it’s not like we’re hanging it up next year, but we thought a few things. Number one, the people who sold the bookstore to us, I happen to think, made a good decision. We were the right people to buy it because of our community roots and involvement and were able to continue and enhance the stature of our community bookstore because of our own connections. When we’re ready to retire and sell the store, we take the chance that we sell it to the wrong people, and instead of getting better, it gets ruined.
By far the most valuable asset we have in the bookstore is the employees, many of whom have worked here since it opened in 2004, who care desperately about it. They’re very qualified and capable, and could almost certainly find jobs that paid more money if they wanted to because it’s not like you get paid a huge amount of money working in a bookstore. But they care deeply about it, and they’re in large part responsible for its health and success. So they’re the ones we thought should be owning it after us; they have the biggest stake and biggest impact on its doing well. We did it with a group of about nine who have the most significant managerial and operational responsibility.
We feel in a sense that we’re caretakers of a community asset we happen to own, but feel a responsibility to run for the good of the community that we’re a part of. The proof of the pudding is that since we’ve announced this, there’s been incredible enthusiasm among our customers, saying, “This is so great! Now I know that Porter Square Books is going to be around for a really long time.” People see it as ensuring the continued vitality and character of the store.
Since authors are your rockstars, what do you like to read?
I read mostly fiction and history. There’s been some really good stuff that’s come out in the past couple of years in U.S. Colonial and 19th-century history, some wonderful World War I and World War II history books. With fiction, my own interests prior to the store were in 19th-century British literature. These days, I don’t read nearly as much Dickens and Jane Austen as I used to. I’m reading mostly contemporary stuff.
I’m not generally a mystery reader, but there’s one Scottish author, Peter May—I’ll read anything he writes. I like Ann Patchett a lot, I think I’ve read all of her books, fiction, and nonfiction. She’s a magnificent writer. I enjoy my friend Matt Pearl’s books. He writes literary thrillers, normally about the 19th century. His first and most famous book was called The Dante Club, about Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes and a bunch of literary types who lived in Cambridge in the 1800s, and there was a series of murders related to Dante’s Inferno. His latest, The Dante Chamber, just came out. I’m reading a really interesting—and totally depressing—book called Everything You Love Will Burn. It’s a history of white nationalism in the United States by a Norwegian journalist named Vegas Tenold.
Are you seeing any trends in the book industry?
After the election, there was a kind of numbness that set in, and people didn’t want to read books about politics. But what came out of that immediately was people were reading books about issues they might not have thought important before, but socially are very important, like Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, about homelessness, or Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, about the way the criminal justice system disparately treats black people and white people. Or Roxane Gay’s books about feminism, and Lindy West writing about fat-shaming and Twitter-trolling in Shrill. I see a lot more nonfiction books selling about those issues.
Good fiction remains popular no matter what, and in some cases, it’s about these same topics that people are writing nonfiction about, like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that book became even more popular right after the election. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the National Book Award—one of the strands deals with the history of oppression of black prisoners in the South. To the extent that there’s any kind of thread, in fiction, it’s books that deal with those social justice topics we’ve seen on the popular lists for the last year and a half.
What’s your bookselling philosophy at Porter Square?
A bookseller’s always walking a line between recommending what they know and love and trying to figure out what the customer’s actually looking for. How can you as a bookseller glean what they care about, and then figure out how that’s going to translate into the right book? For me, it’s the ability to get that information out of someone—the type that allows you to discern what they like and what they want, and then translate that into a title of a particular book in your store. That’s what’s really hard about bookselling, and that’s what’s really fun about it. The payoff is when the customer comes in the store two weeks later and says, “That book that you gave me—that was perfect. I loved it.” And then you know you did your job.
Photography: Suzanna March Photography