By Jessica A. Kent
March 17, 2019
Head northwest out of Boston up the incline of Route 2, pass where Thoreau spent his two years at Walden Pond, and in the next town you’ll find The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, which celebrates its one year anniversary on March 24. The bookstore, which can be found in a growing walkable retail town center in Acton, is located in, of all places, a former car wash. And while it may still retain that boxy car wash appearance from the outside, stepping inside feels like stepping into your own living room, filled with light and books. The founder and owner is Paul Swydan, a former sportswriter who thinks very deliberately about each detail of the store and each point of contact with the community. It’s that care, and a willingness to say “yes” to new opportunities, that led Swydan to confirm that “It’s been a really good year.”
Origins of a Bookstore
Swydan’s a baseball guy (he dropped a few baseball metaphors in our conversation about bookstores), and spent fourteen years in the industry as a reporter and an editor of The Hardball Times. More recently he freelanced for Boston.com covering the Red Sox, “but it was a lot of work and it was getting to the point of repetitive, repetitive.” Around the same time, Willow Books, a twenty-one year staple of Acton, closed after the owner’s retirement, and suddenly the town was without a bookstore. While Concord Books is only one town over, the traffic prohibits timely visits – and besides, it’s not the hometown bookstore, it’s another town’s bookstore. The third factor of the perfect storm was that the former car wash, which had housed a few retail stores since, sat empty, in a location that was conducive to foot traffic (unlike Willow Books’ destination location).
“It was perfect for me because right when I was finishing writing the bones of my business plan was when it came on the market,” Swydan explains. “I was like, ‘Well this place is perfect!’ So I was able to write my business plan with this spot in mind...because so much of a business plan is location-based.” Knowing the dimensions of the space, what the parking was like, what neighborhood it was in – basically concrete logistics rather than theoretical guesses – made it easier for Swydan to get his loan.
Swydan began reaching out immediately and putting in the work necessary to learn (in fact, that’s one theme that came up in our conversation, Swydan’s willingness to learn and course-correct, learn and course-correct). “When I made the initial plunge, there was this article in the New York Times about authors who own their own bookstores. It was five authors, and one of them was Jeff Kinney, [who owns Plainville, MA’s] An Unlikely Story.” While Kinney’s email wasn’t on the website, Swydan found the contact information for the general manager, and reached out to her with his story. “I asked her all these inventory question, like how do you buy the books, what do you do. And she was very polite – she didn’t answer any of them – but she sent me the link to the Paz seminar and said, ‘Go to this, and if you still want to do it after you go to this, then you’re on your way.’” Paz & Associates, dubbed “The Bookstore Training Group,” is an independent organization that trains up-and-coming bookstore owners. Swydan found himself at the seminar in Nashville a few months later.
As for the name? ‘Unicorn’ was there from the beginning, but The Unicorn Bookstore sounded like it needed something. For a while, the store was almost named The Blue Unicorn, in honor of the high school’s colors of blue and yellow. But Swydan wasn’t sure everyone would get the reference, “so eventually I switched to silver because silver is my favorite color.” But of course, Swydan did his research, sourcing the names of over a hundred bookstores and categorizing them into either geographic titles, pun titles, or ‘other.’ “I wanted to be ‘other,’ because I wanted to have a name that stands out that people will remember. Willow Books was a nice simple name, but it was a name that stuck in your head. And so I wanted to have the same thing.”
Opening Day and Beyond
The original plan was to open at the beginning of March – but living in New England, the weather had other plans. “We had those two really big snowstorms, and so first the bookcases were delayed from the first storm, and the second storm delayed the books themselves,” Swydan says. They had been building up on social media – a look through early tweets shows posts with pics of new fixtures, new furniture, all to build excitement – and eventually Swydan deemed them opened, despite not being fully unpacked. “When we opened there were still boxes everywhere, and the guy that I had working for me at the time, Mike Joachim, who is now the manager of Toadstool Bookstores up in NH, was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, people like looking through the boxes.’ And they did, they loved it.” Swydan remembers it being so busy on opening day that he only sat down for maybe five minutes. “It was amazing, and I was blown away by the response, especially because it was a soft opening. We didn’t advertise except on [social media]. So that was awesome. And it made me think, Ok, maybe there’s something.”
That first week of opening, The Silver Unicorn hosted seven events in seven days, which Swydan admits was a little much, yet easing into running a bookstore didn’t seem to be a priority – they jumped in. Immediately, The Silver Unicorn picked up where Willow Books had left off in terms of hosting ‘literacy nights’ – evenings when local teachers do story times at the store – and they do them for all six local elementary schools. Those initial seven events, which included known local authors, writing literary fiction, YA, and kids books, kicked off a very well-curated menu of author events that even some established bookstores have yet to achieve. Swydan admits that “Most of the events we have are people I DM on Twitter, or their emails are on the website and I email them, and usually people are happy to come out.” Because of the location of The Silver Unicorn, it can tap into not only the metro-Boston literary scene, but their location lends itself to easy travel from western Massachusetts writers; for instance, Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple did a story time in December, and Ali Benjamin, another author from Western Massachusetts, will be visiting for Independent Bookstore Day on April 27.
Another event from this past year (that Swydan wants to duplicate with different authors) was November’s “A Feast of Fiction,” in partnership with the Orange Door Kitchen down the street. The evening featured local authors Jenna Blum, Crystal King, and Louise Miller talking about their food-centered novels with attendees, over a dinner inspired by meals from their works.
Recently, The Silver Unicorn partnered with local bookseller Clarissa Murphy to create A Whirlwind Romance pop-up bookstore at Bow Market in Somerville, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Swydan saw a post about a romance pop-up on Murphy’s Facebook page and responded with a ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ (Swydan admits that saying yes to opportunities has become his motto.) The pop-up received a number of visitors and great press coverage about its mission and uniqueness.
Swydan has a number of stories from author events over the past year, including their first book launch for local Maynard author Casey W. Robinson and her first children’s book Iver & Ellsworth. “We had set up the launch before we opened and so she took a leap of faith with me, that I would be a suitable store,” Swydan explains, and then tells the story of how, as a first-time bookstore owner, he ordered fifty copies of Iver & Ellsworth. “That should be more than enough!” And then, “We sold all fifty, and the place was mobbed…” Fortunately the publisher showed up with more copies in his trunk. Another story Swydan tells is of the first event that filled all fifty chairs, a reading with ESPN’s Keith Law…though, much to the anxiety of Swydan, those chairs were filled only moments before the event began. Swydan also fondly remembers Gregory Maguire’s visit. And he tells the story of local author Sarah Farizan buying copies of her own books after her reading and signing (“usually they don’t buy their own books”), only to present those copies to the two booksellers running the event that day.
Swydan also has stories from community interaction over the past year as well, including the preschool down the street who came to the store for story time. Afterwards, the students made Swydan a book entitled The Thank You Book with No Pictures (a take on The Book with No Pictures), with little thank you messages from each of them. The Silver Unicorn has done a few bookfairs in the community, and Swydan loves to hand out bookmarks (“Kids love getting the bookmarks and I love giving them the bookmarks”). He tells the story of a child who was upset at losing a bookmark, but ultimately cheered up because it wasn’t her Silver Unicorn bookmark. Despite the community support from opening day on, though, Swydan knew that they wouldn’t be able to ride on the coattails of Willow Books. “I think the way you gain trust is just being present, being open to doing things. … Once we opened we had to make sure that we’re here and we’re receptive to what people want.”
The first year has provided its business learning curve as well, and when asked what one of the most surprising things he learned in the first year was, Swydan responded with proper frontlist ordering and learning the difference between half and full credit returns. (Frontlist are new or newer titles from publishers usually found on tables, as opposed to backlist, which are older tried-and-true books usually found on shelves. Part of how bookstores work is that they are able to send non-selling titles back to the publisher for credit.) Another learning curve was what kind of sidelines, or non-book merchandise, to sell. He got the idea to sell MBTA-related toy trains and magnets from Newtonville Books. And when customers insisted he carry greeting cards – although there are other stationary stores in town, customers wanted to be able to buy greeting cards with their book presents – he did. “There’s all sorts of those things that I’m learning as I go,” Swydan admits. “And as we do, we can improve.”
One Year Anniversary Party
In a kind of throwback to the seven-events-in-seven-days opening, The Silver Unicorn will be hosting six events in two days for their one year anniversary on Saturday, March 23 and Sunday, March 24. On Saturday at noon there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Chamber of Commerce, followed by Book Trivia at 3:00pm (they held a Harry Potter-themed trivia on last year’s Independent Bookstore Day, and it was a huge success; there may be Harry Potter questions, but there will be others as well). At 5:00pm there will be a Poetry Open Mic, an event that Swydan has wanted to do since a successful poetry event last year. Wrapping up the day at 7:00pm will be a Thank You Party at Orange Door Kitchen, featuring “cake and light passed apps, a cheese and charcuterie board, and a cash bar. And publishers have sent some goodies to give away.”
On Sunday morning at 11:00am, there will be a story time with children’s authors Josh Funk and J. R. Krause (whose novel Dragon Nightwas just named a Kids’ Indie Next pick). Finally, at 2:00pm, there will be a middle grade author panel, featuring Rebecca Carprara, Susan Lubner, and Anna Staniszewski – part of their authors’ Love and Magic Tour.
Going forward from the one year mark, Swydan wants to dig more into the community, more than they already have: More bookfairs, getting out to more schools, more events. Mostly, though, he wants the store to be healthy. “I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. We’ve grown a lot in our first year. I think the best place to be would be profitable.” For now, Swydan’s focus is literally on making each corner of the store appealing, making the right decisions for the layout of it, trying new events, taking chances, and building relationships. “I learn something every day, and there’s so much more to learn.”
For more information about the One Year Anniversary events, visit the Silver Unicorn Bookstore website.