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Medford Square bookstore reopens after epic construction delay

Posted by Matt Byrne  August 3, 2012 12:00 PM

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Rob Dilman writes from Bestsellers' Facebook page: "Here's an image of our cafe counter looking towards the front door. Yes, it's very long and will allow us to add a couple new things to our lunch and snack menu."

When Rob Dilman closed his High Street bookshop, Bestsellers Cafe, it was supposed to be temporary.

The charming 19th century brick building that backs up to the Mystic River -- where Dilman had spent a decade dealing books, serving coffee, and making friends -- was slated for some improvements.

With the assurance from his landlord of a quick turnaround, Dilman packed up. The building's owner, Michael Casoli, of Wakefield, eyed the upper floors as prime condominium space, and persuaded Dilman to close so Casoli could make improvements that would allow him to convert the former office space into high-end one- and two-bedroom units.

That was back in April 2007.

"This project was supposed to be a few months process," Dilman said Thursday.

Now, five years, three months, and one day later, Dilman is back in business.

"People walked by and saw a hole in the ground, and thought I was gone," said Dilman, sitting in the window of his gleaming retail space.

If the time dragged for the Melrose resident, his customers seem not to know it. Standing behind the polished counter wearing an apron and a grin, Dilman can't go a few minutes without greeting by first name nearly every customer who trundled through his door.

A lot has happened since Dilman was last open, and life in Medford went on. While the United States and world economies reeled to the edge and back again, Dilman was hand-delivering books to make a few extra dollars.

The country elected a new president. Dilman got another job.

The mayor of Medford was reelected three times. Dilman was promoted twice.

Still, his connection to his customers remained.

"People really wanted to support us. People would call me at home," he said. "For me, I knew I was coming back."

The delay was rooted deep in the river-bank mud on which the three-story building was erected in 1860, when construction protocol pales to current standards. After more than a century on soggy footings, the stately property began to sag.

"It turned out to be a horror show," Casoli said, sitting in a still-unfinished basement that was the root of all the problems. "It took me three years to fix the structure of the building."

Workers had to drive steel girders 40 feet into the earth to find bedrock, Casoli said.

Then came the work to renovate the interior, a process of gut-and-replace so thorough that little but the outside brick shell was left from the original structure, and even that layer received a major retread.

"We built a building inside a building," the landlord said.

While Dilman can never recoup the years of lost revenue, Casoli has agreed to give Bestsellers free rent for close to two years, and did not charge Dilman for the total revamp of the first-floor retail location. Gleaming bamboo floors now takes the place of carpeting, and windows overlooking the mystic were dropped in favor of bigger french doors.

Now Dilman, who reopened Bestsellers for business Thursday and is preparing for a grand-opening celebration next weekend, has the curious task of relearning his own business with a new staff working in an unfamiliar layout.

On that note, Dilman is sanguine, and said that after all the kinks are worked out, he looks forward to introducing programming and themes to reinvigorate the store's identity. In the time he has closed, the book-selling industry has endured its own seismic market interruptions.

Borders Books, the second largest national book retailer, folded in 2011, narrowing the major competition to Amazon.com's vast online offerings and the book world's big-box chain, Barnes & Noble.

To enliven his store's selection, Dilman said he will shuck the New York Times bestseller list in favor of a similar compilation distributed by IndieBound, a group that polls what tomes are selling in the nation's independent book shops.

Dilman also plans to grow online, too, where he envisions an e-commerce outlet. He also hopes to bring more events to table, and has plans to work with publishers to bring authors to the store for readings and book signings, and to bill the store as a meeting or performance space for small groups.

"If we were just a book store we wouldn't have survived. If we were just a cafe we never would have survived," Dilman said. "I think a bookstore like this should promote not just the historical culture of the community, but also the artistic community as well."

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.


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