Independent Bookstores Interview

Over the last few years, the book industry has seen a great deal of change both in the production of books as well as in the retail sales of books. Amazon and other big chain retailers have taken to the Internet to peddle their wares while brick and mortar bookstores like Borders Books have been forced to close their doors. Through the trials and tribulations that come with an evolving book industry many intrepid independent bookstores continue to succeed and even grow. Two such independents are Mysterious Galaxy and the HugoBookstores.

Mysterious Galaxy is a specialty bookstore owned and operated by Maryelizabeth Hart, Jeff Mariotte and Terry Gilman. They opened their first story in San Diego, California in 1993 and now have a second location in Redondo Beach. “In the store’s 18-year history selling works of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, suspense, and horror, the team at Mysterious Galaxy has built a community of fans that extends beyond the borders of San Diego County, beyond the borders of independent business, and beyond the borders of their specialty genres.” —Mysterious Galaxy History

HugoBookstores offer a wide selection of books, both fiction and nonfiction, and are owned by Robert Hugo and John Hugo who has recently celebrated over 45 years of selling books. His original store The Spirit of ’76 Bookstore and Card Shop was located in Marblehead, MA. Eventually, Bob moved “his store to a 3,000 square foot space in a more prosperous part of town. He purchased the building in 1976, knowing that if his business were to grow, he needed to expand. This he did by acquiring a second store in 1988 — the Book Rack in Newburyport and the Andover bookstore in Andover, Mass. in 1992. The Andover store is the second oldest continually operating bookstore in America. Founded in 1809.” —HugoBookstores History

In order to get a better understanding of life as an independent bookseller, Underwords interviewed both Maryelizabeth Hart from Mysterious Galaxy and John Hugo from HugoBookstores to hear about the book industry from an “independent” point of view. We offer special thanks to both of our booksellers for making the time to participate in this interview with Underwords.


HugoBookstores: Spirit of ’76 in Marblehead, MA

For people who haven’t yet discovered your store, how would you describe it?

HugoBookstores: Quirky, each [store] is very different from the others. Across the board, though, we have great book loving staff members who enjoy finding just the right book or gift for you.

Mysterious Galaxy: Mysterious Galaxy offers books of Martians, Murder, Magic and Mayhem (with occasional Masks, Matchmaking, and Munchkins). We are a specialty genre store in Southern California’s Redondo Beach and San Diego, with a focus on SF, Fantasy, Mystery, Suspense, and Horror.

In a world where the big brick and mortar stores like Borders Books seem to be crumbling, what role do you see emerging for independent booksellers? How might that role evolve in the future?

HugoBookstores: Andover Bookstore in Andover, MA

HugoBookstores: There will always be a place for physical bookstores and with the collapse of Borders this opens up sales for independents again for the folks who still want to browse touch and feel real books, gifts and cards. For us, we opened our 4th location in a closed Borders location last November–if Barnes and Nobles closes there will continue to be a rebirth of local indie bookstores!

Mysterious Galaxy: Maybe it’s from being a genre bookseller so long and living through the repeated declarations of the death of various genres and / or sub-genres, but while the loss of Borders was not good for anyone in publishing, from authors to publishers to other booksellers to readers, I don’t think its closing is necessarily a referendum on the vitality of brick and mortar stores, indies or chains. I think the key to succeeding is providing community, whether that’s in the form of hosting events, working with local schools and libraries, supporting authors at off-site events, or other interactions with readers.

What inspired you to open a bookstore? What do you love most about your job, about owning a bookstore?

HugoBookstores: Collage

HugoBookstores: I grew up in the business, ringing sales as young as 7 years old in my Father’s first store in Marblehead. I’m a people person so I love working with great booksellers and talking books with the myriad of different folks who come into our stores to shop and talk books, life, local politics, etc.

Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, CA

Mysterious Galaxy: When Mysterious Galaxy opened our San Diego location in 1993, it was (and continues to be) a labor of love and a reflection of the books we are passionate about. Co-owners Jeff Mariotte and Terry Gilman and I believed that the fans in Southern California would welcome a store specializing in speculative fiction and mystery and suspense, the genres we love, and the community response bore that belief out.

What I love most about being a bookseller is sharing the books I read and am enthused about with other readers – and also learning about new-to-me books from them!

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an independent bookseller? How have you resolved or faced those challenges?

HugoBookstores: The Book Rack Bookstore in Newburyport, MA

HugoBookstores: Amazon and eBooks are the two biggest obstacles because of the deep discounts and ease of purchase ability, not to mention the loophole that allows them to avoid sales tax. That said, the ABA recently inked a deal with Kobo, and I think once we have an eReader device to sell we will get into this market with some success. We have also added a great deal of gifts and sidelines to each of the stores to replace the 10-15 percent loss in hardcover sales that shifted to eBooks; gift purchases are all about serendipity and the margins are better than books so, in the end, we are holding our own just fine. Also, people in good communities still know and understand that if they don’t shop locally they won’t have the small independent stores and bookstores – so even if they do shop Amazon sometimes they still remember to give us a portion of their dollars so we can stay on Main Street.

Mysterious Galaxy Authors Event

Mysterious Galaxy: As independent booksellers we have faced a number of challenges, from deep discounting to consolidation of publishers (something that affected publishing as a whole) to finding ways to effectively offer our customers who want to purchase electronic books from us the best options. We are pleased to be in an environment where I think the average person is more aware of the benefits to buying locally and/or independent, and we are also very appreciative of the efforts of the American Bookseller Association to work very hard on behalf of its members on some of the big picture issues. One example of the latter is the upcoming partnership between Indiebound stores like Mysterious Galaxy and the Kobo ebooks program, including readers.

What can customers and readers expect from a shop like Mysterious Galaxy or HugoBookstores that an online reseller like or a big conglomerate retailer can’t offer?

HugoBookstores: Real people, talking real books, who love the product they sell. People who aren’t in it for huge corporate retail greed and have something you just might love that you never heard about before walking in the door.

Mysterious Galaxy: Charlaine Harris (author) & Maryelizabeth Hart (MG owner)

Mysterious Galaxy: I think the two key elements that distinguish us are curation and connections. By focusing on the books and genres we are enthused about, we have a far broader personal knowledge of our inventory.

This is all generalizations, by the way, as nearly every chain bookstore has passionate booksellers in it; but the distinction holds for Amazon and other retailers to whom books are a loss-leader to entice customers to purchase more profitable items.


How long have you been in business? What would you say is your secret to success?

HugoBookstores: I began in 1965; I would say the secret is consistently changing with the times and continuing to offer great service and personal independence. Being blessed with great staff booksellers who passionately care about the business doesn’t hurt either!

Mysterious Galaxy: Terry Gilman (owner), Denise Hamilton (author), & Maryelizabeth Hart (owner)

Mysterious Galaxy: Mysterious Galaxy opened in San Diego in 1993, as mentioned, so we are a few months away from our 20th anniversary. Our Redondo Beach location opened in September 2011, so has just finished its first year in business.

I don’t know what our secrets to success might be, but I do want to credit my partner, Terry Gilman, in particular for helping us make sure that we pay attention to the business of Mysterious Galaxy, and also for always being willing to try different programs and ideas, often in partnership with publishers or community organizations.


Again, special thanks to both Mysterious Galaxy and HugoBookstores for participating in our independent bookstores interview. Here is a quick list of their locations. If you’re in the area, be sure to stop in and check out their shelves. Supporting your local bookstore is a vital part of sustaining your local economy and keeping the book industry healthy and strong. Go forth and read!

Mysterious Galaxy Bookstores

Mysterious Galaxy San Diego
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite #302
San Diego, CA 92111
Tel: 858-268-4747

Mysterious Galaxy Redondo Beach
2810 Artesia Boulevard
Redondo Beach, CA 90278
Tel: 310-542-6000


The Spirit of ’76 Bookstore and Card Shop
107 Pleasant Street
Marblehead, MA 01945
Tel: 781-631-7199

The Spirit of ’76-2
450 Paradise Road
Swampscott, MA 01907
Tel: 781-581-7676

Andover Bookstore: More than a Bookstore
89R Main Street
Andover, Massachusetts
Tel: 978-475-0143

The Book Rack Bookstore
52 State Street
Newburyport, MA 01950
Tel: 978-462-8615

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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