David Sandberg never saw himself owning two bookstores. The former lawyer, who has been co-owner of Porter Square Books since 2013, recently oversaw the opening of the famous local bookshop’s second location in Boston’s Seaport District. Despite the setbacks of COVID-19 and the pressures of expanding, Sandberg sees a bright future ahead for the new shop. “I just think that we worked really hard to make this new store feel very much like it is Porter Square Books,” Sandberg said. “I think it’s too early to tell, we’ve only been open a month, but it looks like we’re going to be successful in creating that.”
Sandberg and his wife, Dina Mardell, first moved to the Cambridge/Somerville area in the mid-to-late ‘80s with very different career plans. Sandberg worked as a private attorney for a time and eventually as the General Counsel for ITA Software (a role he continued when the company was purchased by Google in 2011), while Mardell worked as a teacher. Then, in 2013, the couple saw in the newspaper that the owners of Porter Square Books were retiring and putting the store up for sale. “We had no background in, not only in the bookstore business, but in any kind of retail at all,” says Sandberg. “But it was an amazing … opportunity. And so, in 2013 I left Google and she left teaching and we bought the bookstore.”
The pair initially thought their story would end in Porter Square. They set up pop-up stores at Bow Market and the Porter Square Shopping Center at one time or another, but otherwise they saw the bookstore as their final home before retirement. Offers for expansion from real estate developers and the like were declined at every turn. The couple even made waves in 2018 when they sold half of the store to 10 of their employees, making them their de facto heirs. But once again, a new opportunity landed in their laps.
In 2019, GrubStreet, a community writing organization based in Boston, approached Porter Square Books about creating a bookstore in their new building downtown. The two organizations were quite familiar with each other, as they had hosted many local author events together over the years, and in Sandberg’s words, “because it was GrubStreet, and we really were excited about the prospect of working with them, we did agree to do it.”
Another aspect that excited Sandberg was the chosen location, an office and apartment complex located in Seaport, an up-and-coming district of Boston. According to Sandberg, Porter Square Books is one of only three main independent bookstores that sell new books, so “when you consider a city the size of Boston, and especially a city that considers itself as cultural and literary as Boston … it seemed like there was a great opportunity.” He also saw Seaport, with its community still forming and its large tourism base, as the perfect area of the city to put down roots. It was all going better than he could have hoped. Then came 2020.
Work on the store had begun in late 2019, when COVID-19 was still a far-off thought to most Americans. When the virus finally hit the United States, everything was put on pause. Sandberg admits that this caused reservations to emerge about the new store. “We had a number of discussions at various points over that year and a half,” says Sandberg. “‘Does this still make sense? Are we doing this? … Is this just insane? To think about opening a new business when the world is falling apart?’” However, when it came down to the line, he says that they had enough support from GrubStreet and their customer base to turn the opening question from an “if” to a “when.” Finally, after years of work and dedication, Porter Square Books: Boston Edition opened in October 2021.
Sandberg swears that this is the last stop for him and Mardell. At their ages, and after all the work they put into building this new store, he says he sees the two locations as the perfect balance for expanding their neighborhood while retaining the spirit of Porter Square Books. Whatever happens in the future, and after the couple fully retires, Sandberg believes the store can always count on its customers, local and beyond (Neil Gaiman made them the only other outlet besides Barnes and Noble that could pre-sell signed copies of his novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”). “The amount of excitement that was out there when we first announced we were doing this new store really convinced us that there was such a desire for it to happen,” says Sandberg. “That it was still going to be worth doing.”