By Tom Dalton
---- — SALEM — Derby Square Book Store will close next month, ending a 39-year run as one of the most beloved, befuddling and unforgettable bookstores on the North Shore.
It has arguably more books per square foot than any bookstore in the country. There are tens of thousands of books in less than 1,000 square feet, which accounts for the tall, teetering towers of tomes.
Stacks of books rise from tables like stalagmites. Only the most intrepid customer dares grab a book from the middle of a tall stack.
“It’s living Jenga,” said Kathy Farias, a Salem State University student and regular customer, referring to a game in which wooden blocks are removed from a tower of blocks and then placed back on top of an increasingly unstable structure.
“We’ve lost piles from time to time,” said a smiling Ted Monroe, who sits at the cash register, peering out at customers from behind stacks of books, like the door man at a speakeasy. He runs the store with his older brother, Frank.
To its many faithful patrons, Derby Books is a literary and cultural treasure trove, a general bookstore with a wider array of books than stores many times its size.
Where else could one find George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” only a few strides from “The Druid Craft Tarot,” and just around the corner from E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades Darker” and Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father”?
This is a store where customers buy old books about Salem history and the latest Harry Potter book on the day of its release.
And everything here is on sale — and has been, seemingly forever.
“It’s been a 50-percent (off) bookstore for the last eight years,” Monroe said.
In January, new signs went up in the tiny windows of the brick building on the Essex Street pedestrian mall: “Final Clearance, 75 percent Off All Books.”
Word spread quickly on social media.
If there was excitement over the sale, it was tempered by remorse over the loss of the only general bookstore in Salem, a place like none other run by two trusted brothers who, for many customers, are family.
“So many places I love are disappearing,” said Jan Costa, who has been coming to Derby Books almost since the day in 1975 when the Monroes’ parents, Robert and Elizabeth, opened the store.
“It’s what a real, actual bookstore is supposed to be,” said Costa, as she bought two bags full of books. “And they will go out of their way” to place a special order. “When I was in nursing school, they actually got me nursing books ... That was pretty cool.”
Customer service is one of the reasons the store survived so long, according to Ted Monroe. When a customer asked for a book not in the stacks, they would pick it up during their twice-weekly trips to the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton or at another wholesaler.
They also survived, in part, on school book fairs and, in the early days, by selling technical books to high-tech firms along Route 128.
“That was during the burgeoning era of micro-computers,” Monroe said. “This was before the Internet ... There was a real niche to be filled there.”
The Monroes — at one point, three brothers worked the store — stay open six days a week and work long hours. They have been one of the few stores to stay open at night, keeping the lights on until 9 p.m. in a retail downtown that goes to bed early.
Derby Books arrived on the scene when Salem had a smattering of general bookstores and is the last one standing. It survived in the era of Barnes & Noble and Borders. It outlasted Cornerstone Books, which opened in 2005 with a fireplace, cafe and much fanfare. Cornerstone, which closed more than three years ago, hosted a literary festival, author readings and book signings.
“We don’t have enough space here for that,” Monroe said.
The tentative closing date for Derby Books is April 17. The Monroes have reached an agreement to sell their books and fixtures to a woman who plans to open a new bookstore at the same site. Those plans are not final.
As the clock winds down, Derby Books is holding a clearance sale and drawing crowds, especially on weekends — or as big a crowd as the little store can handle.
“We try to limit the number of people in the store to 10 or a dozen,” Monroe said. “We just say, ‘Come back in a few minutes.’”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.