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An icon's next chapter: New England Mobile Book Fair has new owner

Posted by Leslie Anderson  November 25, 2011 12:51 PM

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Tom Lyons would like everyone to know that reports of the printed book’s demise are greatly exaggerated. As the new owner of Newton-based New England Mobile Book Fair, he’s banking on it.

‘‘Pretty much everybody I talk to loves books and reads books and wants their children to feel and put their hands on a book,’’ said Lyons, who took the helm of the region’s largest independent bookseller this week.

Lyons bought the iconic 54-year-old book store — where readers can find everything from forgotten children’s classics to best-sellers in its rambling Needham Street warehouse — from the Strymish family, which put it up for sale a year ago.

The terms of the deal, brokered by Ridge Hill Partners Inc. of Needham, were not released.

“Tom impressed each of us with his commitment and passion for the Book Fair, as well as his respect for my family’s legacy,” Jon Strymish, whose family founded the business, said in a statement announcing the sale. “We wish him success as he guides the Book Fair into the future.”

Lyons, 66, of Brookline, spent his career in the insurance industry and more recently as an independent management consultant. He’s also written a Western, which he’s hoping to publish, and is working on a couple of mysteries.

So he understands the importance of moving the business forward, while preserving what its loyal clientele love about the place.

‘‘We’ve got to do this carefully,’’ he said in an interview today. ‘‘Essentially what I want to do is keep the charm.’’

He’s kicking off the important holiday shopping season by stocking up on best-sellers and children’s books, adding some specialty items, and beefing up the store’s renowned remainder section.

Next year, other changes will slowly unfold. Lyons wants to sponsor author events at the store, create a more family-friendly children’s section, and invite the area’s professors and professionals to give advice on what specialty books to sell. He must computerize the inventory.

And — this may sound like heresy to the Book Fair faithful — he plans to reorganize the volumes by genre instead of by publisher.

‘‘I've got to,’’ he said. ‘‘I have a difficult time browsing for a mystery to go by publisher by publisher by publisher. Some people come for a book and some people come to relax.’’

But it’s no easy task to reorganize over a million books, so ‘‘it’s going to take time,’’ Lyons said. And he’ll ask patrons for their opinions along the way. Once he organizes the inventory by genre, he said he'll probably start buying used books as well.

‘‘As people come in they'll see gradual changes — hopefully they'll see them as improvements,’’ he said. ‘‘Bookshelves will be moved around. We want a place where children can have story reading times and events.’’

So what drew him to such a challenge, at a time when some of the country's largest book chains are closing stores?

‘‘I’ve been coming to the Book Fair forever. I've always found it intriguing, and just a lot of fun,’’ he said. ‘‘I think it needs to be here. ... There are people who come from overseas every summer just to shop here. I didn't want to see this disappear.’’

While much of the book industry suffers, Lyons said, independent book stores have seen their business improve over the past year.

‘‘It's such a great staff here. These people love books. They love what they do,’’ he said. ‘‘It's going to be a fun ride.

And even though e-books are gaining ground — in fact he even plans to offer them at the store — Lyons believes so-called dead tree books are far from extinct.

‘‘I stare at a computer all day as a consultant,’’ he said. ‘‘I don't want to stare at one at night. I think a lot of people feel that way.’’

Leslie Anderson can be reached at landerson@globe.com.

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