I often find myself at bookstores, and even more often I find myself at Porter Square Books (PSB). There are never seats available unless you’re really lucky because of all the people that frequent the store.
When you first walk in, you start by looking at the fiction section, across from the bustling of Café Zing. After winding through the shelves and tables, next comes the nonfiction section, including subset genres like biographies, political nonfiction and traveling. I never make it past the nonfiction section until at least thirty minutes have passed. There are so many books that you cannot help but move slowly. There are also little knick-knacks like socks and selfie-sticks — classics of bookstores nowadays — along with hilarious greeting cards.
This community staple was founded in 2004 and has only changed ownership once, in 2013. In 2018 the owners decided to create a program where the management team can choose to buy into an employee ownership co-op. There are now 10 members of the management team that are all co-owners of PSB along with the original owners who are all at PSB full time. They come to decisions as a group and share the profits.
Many bookstores are not owned by people who know books as intimately as the tenured employees of PSB do. Therefore, these stores are often mismanaged. The fact that PSB is owned by people who know the business so well is a true asset.
PSB’s events manager Leila Meglio came back to the store after working as a publicist about a year ago. She grew up 10 minutes from the store, frequenting PSB as a teenager. When a job opening came up, Meglio jumped on it; she wanted to connect people to books instead of publishing. She is now one of the co-owners of PSB as well.
Meglio is the first new person to join the ownership group.
“The idea is to really have ownership here … it’s not easy to work in a bookstore,” she said. “You have to do it because you love it not because you’re expecting to get rich doing it. And with the management co-op, it essentially acts like a 401K.”
This model helps PSB to retain and foster employees that are completely invested in the store’s success and mission.
Porter Square Books does more than simply sell books. It has multiple programs that bring the community into the space, whether it be the Porter Square Books Foundation, its civic program “Be the Change” or the many free events that bring authors and speakers into the store.
The store hosts between three and seven events a week at the store. Meglio’s job is not only to run these events and make sure they are reaching local audiences, but also to comb through publishers’ lists of authors that are traveling and having events in order to bring them to PSB to have a reading and book talk. She really looks for “authors they are really excited about, something that [she] knows about, or her co-worker loves.” A large portion of the events include local authors.
“We definitely view ourselves as a community bookstore and we want to represent local people,” Meglio said.
Therefore, PSB works hard to include authors and topics central to Cambridge and the Boston area. The co-owners want everyone who is interested to be able to come to these events so “85% of these events are free other than some larger, offsite events that you need a ticket for,” according to Meglio.
Another part of PSB that connects the store with the community is the Porter Square Books Foundation: a nonprofit that started in 2014 with a grant from James Patterson with the mission of fostering the love of books in children and families in the surrounding community.
“The best way we know how to do that is to bring authors to schools,” Meglio said.
The foundation will get an author to come present at a school and at every event it holds, “every child leaves with a book.” No child pays for the book and therefore PSB is able to remove barriers of access and connect children with books. The foundation has very little overhead which allows all of the money — mostly coming from donations and some fundraising — to go straight to purchasing books for children. In 2019, PSB gave roughly 1,500 books to children in the area.
PSB also has an outgrowth called Be the Change, which is its civic program. It is committed to getting resources to people who want to make government and policy change. It has an event at least once a month that varies in topic but focuses on community action. Sometimes these events include a book or an author, but they always focus on a local organization.
“The idea is the topic is something that the community can really interact with,” Meglio said.
Be the Change brings concrete action items to audiences in order to facilitate action.
The Be the Change event this month is a screening of the film “Suppressed: the Fight to Vote” (2019), which is about Stacy Abrams’s political run in Georgia and how policy and other factors affected voter turnout. Each Be the Change event also donates 20% of all the store sales during the two-hour event to a dedicated nonprofit.
“That’s our way of putting attention to it and putting some money behind it as well,” Meglio said.“We are not just a place that is to gather for our community, but we are really for our community. We see the bookstore as a place where you come, where you want to talk to your community and have these conversations.”
Not only does PSB cultivate local civic conversation, but they also try to help promote local authors. In the publishing world today, it is very difficult to have a large publishing house print and promote your book. PSB has a consignment program where they will give shelf space to local, mostly self-published authors looking to have their books reach more people. There’s only so much shelf space, but the owners try to give as many local authors the opportunity to sell their books for no cost. They will put the book on their shelves for free and authors will earn the same percentage of money that PSB would normally pay to the publisher.
Another offered opportunity is PSB’s writers-in-residency program. Every year the program takes applications for two writers-in-residency, one that writes for young adults and another that writes for adult audiences. After a long application process, it offers these two authors office space to work, access to the galleys, a discount at their store and the café and simply a voice within PSB. The point is to make resources that authors need more available to people within the community.
PSB has an obvious and central mission to spread its love of reading and love for Cambridge, Somerville and surrounding towns. Bookstores like it are essential safe spaces for communities and create a special haven for growth in knowledge and conversation. They continue to represent all that independent businesses and bookstores specifically can be.