Commentary: Farewell to a Founding Member, and a piece of Waltham’s heart


by Bob Perry, Waltham Local First Co-Chair

This hurts. Back Pages Books on Moody Street—one of the founding members of Waltham Local First—closed this week.

Back Pages’ Owner Alex Green quoted a friend in his eloquent farewell posted on the store’s website, saying “nobody is surprised when you close a bookstore, they’re surprised when you open one.” Well, as a long-time small-businessperson myself, I am not surprised, but I am stunned.

Back Pages Books was a cultural anchor in Waltham, a public watershed of intellectual discourse in our City Center. With a thoughtfully curated collection of books for sale, and a regular schedule of first-quality author events, Alex provided a crucial counterbalance, an ongoing, vital counterargument to a common social media meme: the complaint that “all we have on Moody Street anymore is restaurants and dollar stores.”

I awoke this morning realizing that Waltham’s kvetchers on the interwebs are more right about that this week than they were a week ago: another of Moody Street’s historically great businesses is gone. Two questions are top of mind for me, and here are my thoughts on each:

Why did Back Pages Books close? I’m certain Alex made his excruciatingly difficult, final decision for a variety of reasons. But the fact is that most businesses close because they are not profitable, and therefore not viable. Of course, profit is a function of both revenue and expenses, so it can be rightly argued that cost control is a major determinant of business success. However, revenue—sales—is the most important factor in the success of a business. I’m certain that if Back Pages had been generating high sales, they’d still be open. It’s painfully simple, really: I believe that they simply needed us to buy more of their books.

How should we respond to the loss of a great local business? To quote the great Elvis Presley: A little less conversation, a little more action. We need to walk our talk. We need to Shop Local, people.

Local businesses that are not selling food (grocery stores, restaurants) or services (hair and nail salons, auto repair shops) face strong headwinds in the modern world, primarily originating from giant discount retailers like Amazon online and big-box stores like Costco, BJ’s, Walmart, Target, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and more. We the people, especially amidst the ongoing twin trends of most of us having to live with less free time and less disposable income, are more than tempted by the convenience and savings of those non-local, big-business options; we may feel that we have no choice.

However… if we REALLY want more and varied local retailers, we must make the disciplined decision and take the decisive action and live with the more limited choice and the somewhat higher prices that shopping local generally means. We need to dig deep.

It’s like getting and staying in shape: We know we will look better, feel better, and live longer if we eat more carefully and work out. But that takes time and some sacrifice—we have to spend a little more time and money to look and feel our best. We have to take some pain.

But there is a payoff for eating well and exercising: We DO look better. We DO feel better. We WILL live longer.

The fitness metaphor holds for Shopping Local: Our city and our community will be much healthier if we spend our money in our local businesses. If more of our local businesses thrive (and they will thrive only if we make the choice to spend our money there), other local businesses will open because they see that we support our local businesses, leading to a more diverse business mix. If we commit to a program of Shopping Local, Waltham will look better, being in Waltham will feel better to each one of us, and as a community, Waltham will live longer, with fewer and shorter “down” cycles, both economically and culturally.

It’s time, people. It’s time for less talk and more action. STOP complaining about the business mix in the downtown. GO downtown and spend money in the businesses wAlexe have and make our community healthier so that others will choose to do business here. That’s what it takes to keep a business like Back Pages Books alive and well: we must buy THEIR books.

We as consumers have to make the next move and buy those dresses and shoes and eyeglasses and candles and suitcases and, yes, those BOOKS from More Than Words, and everything else that IS for sale in our local retail stores. To borrow a fitness slogan from a very big business: JUST DO IT!

Alex Green, I and many others will miss your great store. But I know that YOU will be fine, in time. Still… Back Pages is gone, and nothing about that feels the least bit fine.

Looking ahead, we must know and own the fact that protecting and strengthening our downtown is OUR responsibility, collectively. We have to get out there and and give our wallets a workout. No excuses. No more complaining. Social media mavens, stop teasing us by TELLING us that you care about them, while not really shopping there, in Waltham’s local businesses. We need you in our businesses. There is no shortcut. – Yes, Elvis, a little less talk, a little more action!