March 16, 2018
Porter Square Books is being sold to its staff
by Simon Reichley
It seems that things are changing pretty quickly in the world of brick-and-mortar bookselling. No one has managed to put out the tire fire at Barnes and Noble, not even by throwing more money at shareholders. Amazon Books continue to pop up hither and yon. Indie bookstores are surging, at least in New York City. And one of the most respected indies in the country is undergoing a pretty massive reorganization — one that will see its employees take ownership over half the company.
As Alex Green reports at Publishers Weekly, Dina Mardell and David Sandberg of Porter Square Books, just outside Boston, have loaned senior staff (including Melville House author and top-rate human Josh Cook) enough money to buy half the stakes in the store, which Mardell and Sandberg purchased in 2013. Over time, employees will contribute their portion of the store’s profits to a fund that will eventually repay the initial loan. By the time Mardell and Sandberg are ready to retire, employees will be able to complete the purchase of the store.
One of the great tragedies of bookselling, as a career, is that the wages are rarely (read: never) sufficient for most booksellers to become owners on their own, meaning that, in small stores, management often lacks hands-on bookselling experience, which isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. As Sandberg puts it, “We’re going to be in bad shape if the only people who own bookstores are the ones who have the money [to buy them].”
Mardell and Sandberg were not themselves booksellers when they bought the store from Jane Dawson, Dale Szczeblowski, Carol Stoltz, and Jane Jacobs (not that Jane Jacobs), but they had the good sense to keep Szczeblowski, Stoltz, and Jacobs on as staff members. Now, by anticipating the next changing of the guard, Mardell and Sandberg have all but guaranteed that Porter Square’s future can be built on solid ground, and, with a little luck and a lot of solidarity, become a truly generational institution.
Cheers to them, and cheers to the new old team at Porter Square.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.