"Study the past if you would define the future."

-Confucius

 

Mitchell’s Book Corner History: The Beginnings

by, Mimi Beman

 

MBC opened its doors at 3 p.m. on June 28, 1968 to dozens of curious Nantucketers anxious to view their brand new Main Street bookstore and perhaps to sample the blue and orange mini-cupcakes and the non-alcoholic punch. We were open until 7 p.m. that evening and sold over $800 worth of books during those few hours, a goodly sum at the time. That memorable first day of bookselling on the corner of Main and Orange Streets was the beginning of a fascinating journey of learning, of triumphs, of a multitude of mistakes, and of growth.

Plenty of preparation led to the opening of MBC’s doors that afternoon in June. My father, Henry Mitchell Havermeyer (grandson of Maria Mitchell’s younger brother), was a graphic designer/art director in New York City and was anxious for an early retirement on Nantucket. My mother, Mary Allen Sargent Havermeyer (also descended from early Nantucket settlers), was a voracious reader, had great people skills, and was equally attracted to the possibility of retiring on Nantucket.

Moving to Nantucket and opening a new business on the island were not decisions that my parents made easily. While my father was finalizing his business in NYC, my mother went to work (for a full year) at a Doubleday Book Store in Scarsdale, not far from their Westchester home. My mother’s brother was, at the time, the President of Doubleday Publishing Company, which owned over 30 bookstores all over the country (this was pre-Barnes and Noble, Borders, and big box mania). To get some experience in bookselling operations, after my freshman year in college, I spent the summer of 1967 working at Doubleday’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street.

In 1967, there were several commercial properties for sale in the downtown area and when my parents eliminated all but two, my father suggested that he and I performed a little experiment. I sat on a bench in front of 54 Main Street, pen and paper in hand. He sat outside the property on the corner of Centre and India with his notes. For 30 minutes that morning, afternoon, and evening, we counted the number of people who walked by our locations. Twice the number of people walked by 54 Main Street (now Mitchell’s Book Corner) than the Centre Street spot! (What would the count be today, I wonder?)

Through our connections with Doubleday, we were fortunate to be able to hire a bookstore architect to transform the corner building at Main and Orange from a dark, uninviting men’s clothing stored (known as “Fitzpatrick’s”) into a bright, welcoming world of books with all their colors and sizes on display. This was not a makeshift operation—every fixture and shelf, every nook and cranny had a purpose and continued to have a purpose for the next 40 years. Yes, the size of the books have changed. Yes, we have moved sections around year after year. Yes, the number of titles we wanted to carry grew many-fold over the years, but the store was set up for those changes and somehow adapted, rather miraculously, to our needs.

My father’s extensive experience and talents in art direction were essential in creating a successful island bookstore. During his career, my father had designed trademarks (we call them logos now) and he felt the importance of developing one for the new shop. He started with an oval shape and wanted the centerpiece to be maritime-related—what better image than an illustration of the Charles W. Morgan with “Mitchell’s Book Corner” written around the border?

 

This handsome logo was printed on everything—bags, bookmarks, wrapping paper, stationary, print ads, and tote bags. And if followed naturally that the store sign would be a large, colorful representation of the logo with the colors blue (for a marine theme) and orange (for the name of the street off of which we were situated). In addition, quarterboard signs were made to hang off the main sign, each one announcing a feature of the bookshop: “Bestsellers,” “Paperbacks,” and “Things.” The sign and the logo became as synonymous with Main Street as the cobblestones, and the logo has since been spotted the world over, from New York’s Park Avenue to Denver International Airport to Hong Kong.

Not surprisingly, my father’s other strength was store promotion. In his and MBC’s case, it took the form of weekly print ads in the local newspaper The Inquirer and Mirror. A couple of weeks before the store opened, he used teaser ads to whet the appetites of future customers. Echoing Peter Benchley’s novel JAWS, the headlines of the ads read “The paperbacks are coming, the paperbacks are coming” and “The cookbooks are coming, the cookbooks are coming,” etc. The real breakthrough came with an ad in October of ’68 with the headline “We caught Nine Scallops,” followed by a brief description of my parents’ disastrous first attempt in family scalloping. Readers took pity on this disastrous adventure and my parents arrived home after work that evening to find proper scalloping tools, waders, and even enough scallops (more than nine) for their dinner! Thereafter, the ads became the vehicle to communicate my father’s love for the island, their adventures here, and yes, even books. The ads continue today, perhaps not with the loving care that my father infused in them, but with the respect of a great 40-year tradition.

Why didn’t we change the 1960s look of the fixtures and more forward with the times? Why didn’t we modernize and become cutting-edge? Well, we did in our way. Yes, the fixtures and design stayed the same but the inventory, the books, have been constantly in flux, frequently cleared of dead wood, always up-to-date, current, relevant. That’s what has always mattered.

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