So, Wednesday I found myself over in Porter Square for a “Techs in Libraries” meet up — geeks who work on libraries. I found myself there 20 minutes early — just enough time for some coffee. Happily, there was a bookstore in across the street, Porter Square Books. If you are sensing a pattern — where I go somewhere random, then find a bookstore and blog about it — you’re onto me. One of my favorite things is “accidentally” finding myself near a bookstore.
Porter Square Books is nestled into a small shopping center in, well, Porter Square. I’d visited the store and chatted with Josh Cook when I was launching The Hawaii Project. Josh is an author (An Exaggerated Murder), as well as a bookseller of Porter Square Books.
When you first walk in, on the left you notice Cafe Zing, with a chalkboard menu with all kinds of good stuff on it — from baked goods to all manner of coffee and teas, and sandwiches.
The obligatory recommendations table is there, but it’s different! Some lovely tasty cover art (Outrun the Moon) — but you’ll also note they don’t just recommend new books, they recommend good books — note The Song of Achilles prominently featured, even though it was released in 2011 (reviewers said for example, “Mary Renault lives again”, which is the highest of praise in my book). It’s not a chain pushing the bestsellers on you.
There’s a great collection of recommendations up front, and as you go further into the store you find a number of interesting displays. The Sci-Fi section is right up against the front glass, not hidden in the back like it’s porn the way it is in most bookstores. Next thing I encounter is the Indie Next bestseller list — not totally unique to an indie bookstore, but still, a compact presentation of a lot of great books.
Across the aisle from that, something a bit more unique — the “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” display. The books’ covers are hidden and only the first line is shown. The top left book’s first line — “They never found his hands”. Now there’s an opening line— and I recognize it! It’s from The Forgers, which I read a few years ago, and that’s a line that sticks with you.
When I was last here, one of the things Josh mentioned to me was that Porter Square Books really focuses on giving great recommendations to folks who come in, based on their reading habits. They’re on the red line in Boston, easy to get to. Give ’em a go.
Josh was generous enough to answer some questions for this.
I noticed you run book clubs out of the store. Could you tell us a bit about how those work, and the popular clubs?
The Porter Square Book Club has been running for years, most often facilitated by a member of the community. We’ve got one of our booksellers helping out now as well. They pick one book a month (with a break in the summer time) and meet at two different times to give more people the opportunity to meet and discuss. Then tend to read literary fiction, both new works and classics. The other two clubs are newer and focus on books for younger readers. One is for actual younger readers (Bookavores) and whoever shows up picks the next book. The other one (Betwixt & Be Teen) is for adults who enjoy reading and discussing books for young readers. Attendees also pick the next book. Both of those are facilitated by our children’s section floor manager
Tell us about some upcoming events at the store?
Events slow down a little bit in the summer time, but we’ve still got some great authors visiting us. In the near future we have some Young Adult and Middle Grade launches, a novel set in Iraq about the execution of Sadam Hussein, some great stuff from small presses, as well as Martin Espada, Gail Carriger, and (in what I expect to be our biggest event of the summer) Jacqueline Woodson with Callie Crossley in August.
In my visit, I saw some fun, quirky displays with book ideas. Anything peculiar or unique you want to share about the bookstore, or things people might not guess about the store?
Probably the most unique thing about the bookstore is the number of published authors we have working for us. We have six at the moment and there’s every indication we’ll have a few more in the not too distant future. We need to brag about that while we still can, as you’re already starting to see more and more writers working in bookstores or coming out of bookselling.
Any particular genres or other things PSB is known for?
In some ways it depends on who’s working when you visit us. Our booksellers have a wide variety of taste and expertise so you could talk to someone who knows a lot about history or works in translation or mystery or most of the other genres. That said, I think we’re still strongest overall and most known for our children’s section. We’ve been lucky to collect a core of booksellers with particular expertise in books for young readers.
What are some of the things that make Porter Square Books special?
The general support from our community is a huge part of what makes Porter Square Books succeed, but, I think in terms of what a customer experiences, it’s that we let our booksellers be themselves and have fun. It’s that freedom that leads to the cool displays you mentioned, makes our social media fun and interesting (A week or so ago I actually deconstructed The Very Hungry Caterpillar on our blog), keeps our stock interesting through what we recommend, and makes Porter Square Books a fun place to be a reader for everyone on both sides of the counter.