WRANGLING MAN Tom Lyons, new owner of the New England Mobile Book Fair, says the quirky spot can be tamed without killing its soul.
A few weeks ago, I dropped by the New England Mobile Book Fair to buy an Orhan Pamuk paperback, The Museum of Innocence, for my book club. I ran into Jon Strymish, the Book Fair's 48-year-old floor manager and co-owner, and asked him where I might find it.
That's not as straightforward a question as it might seem. The Book Fair, housed in a 35,000-square-foot former tennis-racket factory in Newton Highlands, is filled to capacity with more than a million books, in piles and on a hodgepodge of cramped, hastily made shelves. Its strange system of organizing books by publisher was designed to serve founder (and Jon's father) Louis Strymish's original clientele of librarians and bookstore owners, there to stock their own shelves.
At a dusty, cluttered computer kiosk, Jon Strymish punched "museum of innocence" into Amazon and determined that the book is published by Knopf. From there, we walked over to the section for Random House — the megaconglomerate of which Alfred A. Knopf is but a small, distinguished imprint — and looked for the novel in a cluster of books stacked horizontally on a low shelf. Strymish bent his large frame down to get a closer look at all the Random House authors whose names began with "P."
It wasn't there.
Strymish wasn't fazed. He knew that his store would carry all recent paperbacks by the Turkish Nobel Prize-winner, so we took to the aisles. After looping around the labyrinth for only a short while, we ran into an employee named Greg who had just constructed a Pamuk display near the front of the store. Strymish spotted a stack of The Museum of Innocence, plucked one out, and handed it to me with a triumphant smirk. I bought it — along with two additional books I noticed in my travels. This is the unique charm of the Book Fair: it is totally wild. You have no idea what's there.
But soon, shopping at the Book Fair will be a very different experience.
Last week, the Strymish family and the store's co-owner, Steve Ganz, sold the Book Fair to Brookline businessman Tom Lyons. And Lyons plans to make some changes.
"I'm an auditor by trade; I look at things differently," Lyons said. "I'm into process and control. I'm into flow. The inventory has to be redone."
Lyons will break with over half a century of tradition and reorganize the Book Fair (which Louis Strymish opened in 1975) the way other bookstores are organized — by category, not publisher — and make signs to help people find their way around. The Book Fair has always been an under-the-radar, word-of-mouth kind of place; Lyons plans to hold regular events and book signings to draw people in. He plans to put the kibosh on the oddball Book Fair practice of letting publishers do their own inventory and restock orders.
In short, Lyons will transform what is essentially a supersize extraterrestrial spacecraft of a bookstore into something more recognizable — more like a local neighborhood independent.