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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alum’s bookstore faces closure

Back Pages owner reaches out for help

Published: April 18, 2008
Section: Front Page

Last week, in the shadow of his three year anniversary, proprietor of Back Pages Books Alex Green ’04 sent an e-mail to over 800 friends, acquaintances, customers, and colleagues detailing his store’s financial woes. After three years on Moody Street, his business is on verge of shutting its doors.

“[W]ithout significant increased financial support,” he wrote in his e-mail message, “I will have to close the store in the immediate future.”

In an interview, Green described the challenges the bookstore has faced over the past three years. “When we started, banks weren’t going to lend us any money, we had no personal property,” he said. People were skeptical of the store’s viability, “but it took off so massively.” Even so, six months after the store’s opening, another bookstore, More Than Words, opened two doors away from Back Pages. While the stores each have a distinct niche, Green explained, the presence of More Than Words was less than a blessing.

Shortly thereafter, Green’s business partner, Ezra Sternstein ’04 departed. “It was very hard when he left,” Green commented.

Adding to his troubles, Green was paying high rent in an unsuccessful location. Thus, Green decided to move from 368 Moody Street to the store’s current location at 289 Moody Street. After being assured he would be closed for less than two weeks, “this building had been held up endlessly in permits…we were closed for 40 days.”

Despite the 40 day shut-down, Green’s sales for the first three months of the year are up by 46 percent, he said. However, in late March, Green explained, “I realized…that I’d done a fairly decent job of reducing [the store’s] debt and I still wasn’t going to be able to come out of it fast enough.”

“This business is successful but not with what’s weighing us down,” he stated. “If we can erase the debt from before, we could be successful.”

As such, Green wrote in his e-mail, “[t]o resolve the current situation we need to immediately raise $50,000 and an additional $25,000 throughout the coming months that will allow the bookstore to be self-sustaining by the September textbook season.”

In order to reach that end, Green has devised a tiered membership plan. The plan, which Green modeled after a bookstore in California, allows customers to buy one year memberships for anywhere between a $20 Entry membership and a $2500 Platinum membership. Depending on the level of membership, members receive certain benefits. For Platinum members, Green will arrange a dinner with a guest author.

The membership plan “is the same as the idea of sending out the e-mail,” Green explained. “Fifty percent of what makes a good bookstore is the owner and 50% is the people.”

“I would never want people to throw money at me without them understanding my gratitude,” he said. “These are hard times and people don’t have extra money. I absolutely would love to give something back.”

Green stressed the importance of support not only from Waltham residents but from the Brandeis community as well. In addition to some students purchasing course books from the store, President Reinharz purchased $100 gift certificates for all department chairs a few years ago. “In a very basic business way,” Green explained, “Brandeis is absolutely crucial.”

But for Green, Brandeis support extends beyond the financial. “There’s nothing Brandeis hasn’t done to extend itself and make me feel welcome” on Moody Street, Green remarked.

Back Pages has received significant help from professors and students who feel a connection to the store. Prof. John Plotz (ENG) remarked, “[Green] is really tuned in to the needs of a college community.” Plotz went on to praise the many readings Green has hosted at his store.

“Everyone in Boston comes to treasure independent bookstores,” Plotz said, “we all want to do everything we can to keep it afloat.”

Stephanie Sofer ’09 is a member of Green’s advisory board to devise strategies to prevent closure. Upon a recent visit to the store, Green handed Sofer a copy of the e-mail he sent. “The minute I started reading, I knew that I had to help,” Sofer explained.

For Sofer, Back Pages Books provided a sense of community she missed during her first year at Brandeis. The bookstore, she said, “doesn’t only sell books, it provides a place for students to hang out.” And moreover, “it became a hub that offered the opportunity to learn more about Brandeis and Waltham,” she said.

Green elaborated upon the relationship between his store and Brandeis. “It’s a particularly giving and open institution,” Green said. “Brandeis understands better than other universities that you can make business succeed while being fair to customers.”

Sofer mentioned Green’s positive business model, pointing to Back Pages’ positive impact on students and the Waltham community. In turn, she said, “it’s my duty as a Brandeis student….to support local business who help facilitate places of community and education to not only survive but thrive.”

From Green’s perspective, Brandeis’ ability to help Back Pages succeed is evidence of the school’s relationship with Waltham. “Brandeis is a lot more tied to the community than it even knows,” he said.

“There’s absolutely no distinction between how I see Brandeis and how I see Waltham,” Green remarked. The school, he said, is like a neighborhood of the town – a neighborhood that “brings something to town that is necessary for the survival of a local bookstore.”