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Tales of woe at Concord Bookshop

It's like a family quarrel that nobody wants and nobody knows how to stop.

 

The Concord Bookshop, a 64-year-old independent store regarded as one of the best in New England, is beset by a bitter clash between owners and staff. The conflict puts pressure on the store at a time when independent booksellers are reeling from competition from chains and the Internet.

Eight of Concord Bookshop's employees, including the trio of top managers, have quit or given their notice. The staffers' years of service add up to 73. The three managers, including general manager Dale Szczeblowski, have worked at the store for a total of 34 years. Meanwhile, a group of outraged local authors -- including historians David Herbert Donald and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and novelists Alice Hoffman, Gregory Maguire, and Jane Langton -- has fired off a letter to the owners supporting the staff.

The precipitating event was a surprise announcement last month by the owners -- a group of three families represented by a board led by president Morgan "Kim" Smith of Concord -- that a new general manager will be hired. No one was laid off, and no one's salary was cut. Yet many of the staff were outraged at the de facto demotions, as well as by what they saw as the owners' immovable stance.

In addition to Szczeblowski, the managers are Jane Dawson, who had handled personnel management, and Carol Stoltz, who ran the children's department. The trio were appointed store managers in 1998. The other staffers leaving are Jane Jacobs, Anne Wagner, Leslie Riedel, Martha Holland, and Robin Wilkerson.

"We asked for a meeting with the whole board," says Wagner. "We presented our concerns, and they thanked us for our input and said, `We're going to do it our way, and if you don't like it, each of you will have to make up your mind as to how to proceed.' Something in me died, the fragile alchemy that made it such a great place to work had died. They had made their plans, we were expendable employees, and we could take it or leave it." When Langton found out about the departures, she began calling other writers and book-related people in and around Concord. In all, 32 agreed to sign an e-mail to the owners. It says, in part: "Surely there is no better bookstore in the Boston area . . . no other set of managers and staff who are themselves such thoughtful readers and at the same time so willing to serve the customers. . . . We appreciate the fact that in the general downturn of the economy, the owners of the bookstore must be concerned with profit and loss, but we believe that . . . the loss of Dale and resignations of other important staff members would have a bad effect on the bottom line."

"We're heartbroken about it," says David Donald, professor of history emeritus at Harvard University, in a telephone interview from his Lincoln home. "These are people we deal with all the time. It's a wonderful store, beautifully arranged. They are knowledgeable and are glad to look things up." Adds Joanne Arnaud, director of the Boston Literacy Fund and a Concord resident, who also signed the letter: "What makes the Concord Bookshop different is the people and their institutional memory and their memory for a customer. I can say, `I'm looking for a book for someone who liked the last book by Nicholas Basbanes. Can you help me?' They are so warm and welcoming."

The clash appears to be rooted in finances. Smith declined to give numbers but portrayed the store's financial situation as dire.

"Things have never been worse," he says. "We are offering something important to the town of Concord, which is wonderful, but it isn't profitable." Smith praises the three managers but says, "The owners felt the three-way management was not working out."

The managers say finances aren't so bad. They declined to discuss specifics, Szczeblowski says, because they are still in discussions with the owners; another meeting is scheduled for Friday. But they issued a written comment: "In explaining to us the change in management structure, the owners told us they wanted to take the store in a different direction. We hold different opinions regarding the financial health of the store. We are very proud of what we have been able to accomplish these past five years."

There's no disagreement, though, that profit margins are tighter than ever, and that the past few years have been rough on independent bookstores, especially in the age of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com. Smith believes some of the store's programs should be reexamined, such as regular weeknight author appearances and signings, which require paying staff to keep the store open.

"Increasingly, people are buying their books elsewhere and bringing them to signings," Smith says. "We had 70 people at the Tracy Kidder signing, but we sold only 10 books. I discovered a guy coming in with five copies of the book that he bought [elsewhere]. We want to preserve the store, but we need to make the finances work."

There's no dispute, either, on Concord's national reputation in the trade. "It is one of the jewels of New England," says Wayne (Rusty) Drugan, executive director of the New England Booksellers Association (Szczeblowski was recently named vice president of the association). "They are the kind of store that's on everyone's A-list. Publishers are interested in what Concord buys. They ask, `How is Concord doing with the book?' They are exemplars for reaching out to the community and in cultivating authors."

The conflict illustrates the special place a bookstore can have in a small community, especially one such as Concord, with its numerous authors and links to such literary giants as Emerson and Thoreau. The store is regarded as a community resource, not just a business.

"At one end of the street is the library and at the other is the monument [to the town's war veterans]," says novelist Gregory Maguire, one of the disgruntled writers. "The bookshop is right in the middle. This is symbolic about how Concord thinks of itself."

Still, there's something classically small-town about the conflict, too -- almost a neighborhood squabble. Smith says most of the board members have been involved with the store for 40 years -- he and his wife have been owners for 28 years. There's mistrust and hurt feelings on both sides. The adversaries all say they love the store deeply and want nothing more than to make it work.

"This is Concord vs. Concord," says Martha Holland, who is quitting after 18 years. "There were a hundred points where it could have been smoothed over. How it got so out of hand, I don't understand. The owners have every right to run their business as they see fit. But if the staff goes, it's just a bunch of bookshelves and carpets."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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