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Customers give bookstore a happy ending

T-shirt sale helps erase back taxes

Pandemonium bookstore owner Tyler Stewart is a bit more comfortable these days. Pandemonium bookstore owner Tyler Stewart is a bit more comfortable these days. (ZARA TZANEV FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

They didn't give Tyler Stewart the shirts off their backs, but fans of Central Square's Pandemonium Books did buy shirts to get Uncle Sam off Stewart's back. Even other local bookstores came to his aid.

When Stewart, owner of the science fiction bookstore, learned he owed the IRS $15,000 in back taxes, he thought he might have to close his business, which had moved to Central from Harvard Square just last June. Then, he came up with a plan. If he sold 1,000 T-shirts at $20 , making a $15 profit apiece, he could dig out.

"We did it," he said. "We sold over 1,000 shirts in two weeks. I'm completely grateful for the response."

Stewart's loyal patrons came through, but so did Frank Kramer of Harvard Book Store , who sees the fellow independent store more as a sibling than a competitor. Kramer informed other local businesses of Pandemonium's plight, encouraged the purchase of the T-shirts, put a note about it in his store's weekly newsletter, which he sends to 35,000 people, and ordered two shirts for himself.

"We're an independent and believe we should be supporting all independent bookstores as much as we can without hurting our own business," Kramer said. "I'm delighted he'll be able to pay those back taxes."

"I was pleasantly surprised," Stewart said about the support from Kramer. "But the relations between bookstores in Harvard Square have always been very gentlemanly. We all had our different hooks, so we didn't step on each other's toes."

Pandemonium remains in debt despite this break. "It's still overwhelming," he said, "but not fatal."

If he hadn't paid off his back taxes, the IRS planned to put a lien on the store, which would have caused a "cascade of other collections," Stewart said. Some of the debt he's been managing for years, but much of it is newly acquired from the store's recent relocation.

Two years ago, Stewart decided he needed ammunition to fight for the business he'd opened in 1989 beyond his degree in international relations from Tufts and a year working at a bank. So he got his MBA from Boston College.

"I had taught myself everything," he said. "Getting the MBA is like the difference between being on a desert island and fashioning yourself a wigwam, and being a carpenter."

While there, his classes in marketing convinced him he could save his store from extinction by moving from the cramped, second-story location in Harvard Square to a bigger space, and trusting sci-fi fans to follow him.

Then the real world hit.

Legal issues slowed the lease for his new space, behind a Mass. Ave. convenience store, building permits slowed construction, and every system needed upgrading. After leaving his Harvard Square space in February 2006 , Stewart couldn't reopen until June. He had to lay off several staffers, store his inventory, and rent an office in Medford. "I didn't pay myself much then," he said. Business became grimmer even after he moved to the new site; sales were slow, and many customers thought he'd gone out of business. He couldn't seem to catch up.

Early last month, he posted a blog entry telling his story and announcing the T-shirt sales plan.

Many customers responded to Stewart's plea by ordering shirts, urging friends to order and posting comments online.

One blogger, "aseop," wrote: "This scares me, because Pandemonium was one of my favorite stores in Harvard Square all the time I lived in Boston. . . . I suppose this goes to show that stores are running on a very thin margin for error."

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