The large hole left by one small retail store

In the front window of Spenser's Mystery Bookshop in Boston, a nearly life-size silhouette shows a private eye leaning against a lamppost, reading a book. With his collar turned up and his hat brim tilted low, he creates an air of intrigue and suspense, as if silently beckoning passersby to come in.

These days, that silhouette shares window space with a sign carrying a sad message: "Going Out of Business Sale." Declining sales and rising costs have forced owner Andrew Thurnauer to hoist the white flag of surrender.

Sometime in the coming months - no date has been chosen yet - Mr. Thurnauer will pack up whatever books remain from his stock of 10,000. He'll take down the sign. For the last time, he'll turn off the lights, lock the door of the 19th-century brownstone, and head home. Another tenant will move in, and life on Newbury Street will go on.

The closing of a bookstore typically rates more space in newspapers and produces more hand-wringing and tears than the closing of a hardware store, say, or a dress shop. Spenser's is only the latest in a long string of bookstores around the country to shutter their doors in recent years. But it stands as a symbol of a larger exodus taking place, affecting not only bookshops but other small, independently owned stores as well. Some of these businesses resemble minnows being swallowed by whales as malls, big-box stores, and the Internet offer stiff competition and carve the retail pie into smaller pieces.

Thurnauer has watched it happen in his own community. When he and his family moved to a suburb of Boston in the mid-1980s, the shopping district included a shoe store, a clothing store, several small drugstores, and a bookstore. Today those have all disappeared, along with the movie theater.

"Now you have 20 places to get your hair cut, five places to get your nails done, and 10 places to get pizza," he says. "Most of the retail shops that sell goods are gone, because people go to the malls."

Or, in his business, they go to the Internet. He tries to take a philosophical view. As a customer, he knows the feeling of "Eureka!" when a website turns up a title he would never be able to locate otherwise.

But as a bookseller specializing in used books, he can only watch sadly as far-flung Internet dealers with no overhead siphon off his business. "Someone who owns a large, rambling house in a rural area can store books with no overhead and sell them all over the world," he says.

At the same time, his operating expenses are soaring, largely due to increases in rent, which costs more than $50 a square foot per month. "Were it not for the explosion in prices in the real estate market, I could have hung on indefinitely," he says.

Landlords may be winning, but owners and customers are losing. Small stores like Spenser's offer a special ambience. On a mid-October morning, sunlight streams through the bay window, forming golden pools on the blue carpet. Classical music plays softly in the background. No chain-store formula dictates the layout. Handmade signs point customers to specific subjects and shelves. The only thing missing is that proverbial bookstore prop, a cat sleeping in the corner.

Retail stores come. Retail stores go. Some changes represent progress. In other cases, the lack of change offers comforting stability.

An example: Now and then, I stop by the local shoe store where we regularly bought shoes and boots for our daughter when she was growing up. Even our favorite salesman, Nick, still works there. His hair is salt and pepper now, but his cheery smile and helpful manner remain unchanged. What a rare treat this kind of decades-long continuity represents. And what satisfaction to be able to support a local business.

That continuity, that personal touch and human connection, also draws customers to Thurnauer's bookshop. "What's going on in here isn't just about selling books," he says. "A lot of people come in to talk. They talk about ideas."

When Thurnauer finally heads home to consider the next chapter in his life, he will lose something tangible - a business carefully tended for 20 years, and a livelihood. At the same time, his customers will lose something intangible - a sense of community, a common bond with other book lovers, a literary haven.

Perhaps it's time for a new motto. As the suave private eye silhouetted in Thurnauer's window, soon to lose his job as the store mascot, might say if he could talk: There's no mystery about it. Shopping locally matters.

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