Columbia University professor Eric Abrahamson and business writer David H. Freedman used the Book Fair as a case study in their 2007 management-philosophy book, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. Chapter Seven, "Mess and Organization," delves into the reasons for the lasting financial success and deep customer loyalty toward a place that looks as though the Library of Alexandria projectile vomited into a barn.
Abrahamson and Freedman really get excited when they talk about the Book Fair's unsurpassable browsing — that certain something that can only be derived from walking around and finding long-forgotten titles on a dusty shelf crowded with thousands of other titles, a feeling similar to sipping bubble tea through an opaque straw that yields lumps of tapioca at irregular intervals.
At the time A Perfect Mess was published, the Book Fair was out-grossing two nearby chain stores. "It has become a fairly complex business," write Abrahamson and Freedman: in addition to its function as a retailer and wholesaler, the Book Fair houses Jessica's Biscuit, an online discount cookbook store. Abrahamson and Freedman note that this complexity is "not the sort of complexity of which a management-consulting firm might approve."
In an ironic twist, its new owner is, in fact, a management consultant.
Tom Lyons is a compact, bespectacled 66-year-old. When I met him at the Book Fair just hours after the sale was announced, he seemed right at home. After fetching me at the front counter, he led me to the sprawling back office, which resembles the exterior retail space, all unvarnished beams and mystery piles.
Lyons told me it took him less than two weeks to decide to buy the Book Fair — even though he didn't know exactly what he was getting. The sale included the business and its stock, a million-plus books that have not been inventoried.
"I knew [I would buy it] once I really got serious about thinking about it," Lyons said.
It's clear that he's enamored with the Book Fair. He wants to maintain the Book Fair's essence, he said, a discreet charm that's kept Lyons shopping there for decades. "I come here all the time," he said. "It's a place I go when I want to relax."
I asked if he had any previous experience in the industry. "None," he said, chuckling. "Well, I take that back. Right now, I have three chapters of a Western written, [to be published] with Kensington. I've always liked Westerns. Elmore Leonard and I talked one time at an event, and he loves Westerns, too."
Lyons has written two unpublished mysteries, and also published a poem in high school.
"I guess I'm a writer," he said.
Management consultant, writer, and now brand-new bookseller — can Lyons tame such a wild place as the Book Fair without killing its soul?
He certainly thinks so.
"I don't think this is risky at all," he said.
For the time being, the New England Mobile Book Fair's former owners will hover nearby. Jon Strymish will stay on as the floor manager at least through the holidays, and his brother David Strymish and Ganz will run Jessica's Biscuit from the Book Fair offices until they move to its 30,000-square-foot distribution center in Foxborough.
When I asked Strymish what he'll miss about a place he's known his entire life, he paused.
"I'm hoping it'll get better," Strymish said. "I'm hoping there won't be anything to miss."
Eugenia Williamson can be reached at email@example.com.