Innovative MIT-area bookstore needs fresh owner, ideas

Lorem Ipsum books, a bookstore in Cambridge, Mass, is up for sale. Cambridge is one of the great bookselling towns of the world, and Lorem Ipsum was founded as a project by an MIT Media Lab grad named Matt Mankins, to explore sustainable business-models for brick-and-mortar bookselling. Now Mankins has moved to NYC to be CTO of a big magazine publisher, and he's taken to Hacker News to solicit buyers and ideas for the store (which is losing money).

I started Lorem Ipsum Books 9 years ago with the belief that bookstores were an important part of our community--and that they needed to innovate in order to survive.

Freshly out of graduate school at MIT the bookstore was started with the notion that integrating Internet-sales into a traditional brick-and-mortar bookstore was the way forward for small retailers. Rather than run from technology, we were going to embrace it to provide a new sales channel. With a group of friends I built this new way forward, creating Lorem Ipsum Books in Inman Square, Cambridge.

Lorem Ipsum benefited from a custom-coded inventory system that automatically listed our inventory for sale at other online partners like It was fun to use, efficient, and worked. For awhile there, it looked like this dual-listing was the answer to bookstore's problems. Then supply-ballooned, demand remained the same, and prices dropped.

We tried many things, but were unable to get the store from red to black.

They just deleted our Wikipedia page, citing progress as being 'unremarkable'. Clearly something has to be done...

It's time to innovate again.

The bookstore needs fresh ideas, a radical change in thinking, and a reimagining of the role of the bookstore in the future. I don't want to shut the store down, but may be forced to. Instead, I'm looking to pass the store to other keepers--other innovators--hands.

Cambridge bookstore, founded as an online/offline hybrid, takes to web to look for new owner (Thanks, kingLuma!)


  1. Just minutes ago, I learned of the immanent closure of another one-of-a-kind bookstore in San Francisco which has also tried the dual market approach. It does seem like it is not enough, and unfortunately I’m not sure there is any solution to this problem.

    In the twelve years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen at least a dozen cherished bookstores go down, and nothing new is opening in their stead.

  2. This is sad.  If the book economy can’t keep all the stores in Cambridge afloat I’d much rather see the COOP close since it’s basically just a Barnes and Noble at this point.

    1. I’m pretty sure the COOP IS a Barnes & Noble and has been for some time:

      In 1995, the Coop entered into an agreement with Barnes & Noble that made the company its manager of operations. Before the 1960s, the Coop’s board, comprised of students, non-students, and a president, made the decisions on what the store sold until they hired professional managers.

      “The board sets the policy, direction, and strategy, and the managers implement it,” Murphy says.

      While the Coop is still the brand, the software that sells and keeps tracks of the books is Barnes & Noble and the sales people are Barnes & Noble employees.

  3. I would like to see all bookstores put in a bistro and salad bar.  Coffee and tea shops, etc.  Also, I can only see the progression downward unless the books can be offered for multi-media devices and put on cd’s, etc., and then rented out similar to video rentals, but with longer durations.  I believe that has potential to be an especially large market for people that still love the way a book comforts them.  Books are going the way of newspapers, people just don’t want the burden anymore, when they can just have the same exact thing on a handheld device.

    1. About a mile from Lorem Ipsum is Porter Square Books, which is doing just that.   I wasn’t too optimistic when they opened up, but they have created a really vital local bookstore, complete with a great staff, a good selection of books, and coffee & snacks.  Given that Harvard Square has lost multiple books stores over the past decade, I was happy to see Porter Square Books prosper.

      1. The other main difference between Porter Square Books and Lorum Ipsum is that Porter Square stocks new books, while Lorum Ipsum (at least appears to) only stock used books.

        I think Lorum Ipsum actually does sell plenty of new books, but you really wouldn’t know from the outside.

  4. Business fact: it doesn’t matter if  some subset of book readers still love bookstores and printed books.  When the former consumer base decreases in size by a factor of 2 or 3, your business model cannot survive.    Greg’s on the right track: combine (somehow, maybe) book sales with coffeeshop atmosphere, and become a specialty procurer rather than vendor of mass product.

  5. The same way that libraries are starting to make space available for hackerspaces, it seems there might be some room in a bookstore in Cambridge for a 3D printing station or something of a similar ilk…

  6. I live a block away from this store. I pass by half a dozen times a week. It is a lovely place, yet I have only shopped their a handful of times. I am the problem, and it makes me unable to see a solution. Let me describe:

    Like any used bookstore, Lorum Ipsum carries an interesting but scattered selection. Once, long ago, when there was no internet, a store like this would have seen me browse for hours, looking for hidden jewels. Now, little is hidden. Discovery in the digital age is a thousand times faster, and a few degrees colder.

    If there is a specific book that I want to buy, something new and obscure, or even a bestseller, the odds that Lorum Ipsum would have it are slim. How could they keep such an inventory?

    A ten minute walk in the other direction brings a person to Harvard Square, which still supports a few large bookstores, with all the new books that are fit to print. These stores are less interesting and more expensive than Lorum Ipsum, but they invariably will have everything, (except, perhaps, the charm.) 

    Cambridge is stuffed with wealthy academics on one of its borders, and these folks buy books by the carload, but they have little little time or patience. When they stroll and browse, it is near Harvard, where they are often employed, or received their degree. 

    When these learned people learn of a new book on NPR and they want to buy it, it is probably purchased on through Amazon on their iPhone before the author’s interview is over.

    For the others, without much cash to burn, consider that a half mile away from Lorum Ipsum stands the newly renovated Cambridge public library,  a temple to books and which poor students or artists or writers will find is utterly and deliciously free. 

    The poor economy doesn’t help any of us, either.

    The trip to Inman square is invariably for food. The pedestrian traffic — the random walkers by — arrive in Inman Square on dates or in small collegial squads. The heavy traffic is at night, and much on the weekend. Is there a business selling used books to drunks in the middle of the night? If so, this is where Lorum Ipsum could captialize.

    I don’t have a solution. I wish that I did. I like having Lorum Ipsum near by and I hope someone has a better vision for it than I.

    1. Lorem Ipsum isn’t strong, yet when we visited my wife’s parents in greater Boston this weekend we shopped at both a Barnes and Noble and at “Used Book Superstore”, part of a small chain, the one in Burlington.  The in-laws live in Arlington, and actually Lorem Ipsum is closer, by distance, than Used Book Superstore.  Both stores we shopped at were seemingly busy- Barnes and Noble was packed, and UBS had a clientele and fairly steady lines at the checkout.

      Barnes and Noble gets the new book customers, that’s obvious.  That’s most likely the place to shop if buying for someone else, or if looking for something new.

      UBS was CHEAP.  CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP cheap.  I frequently shop at a chain in my area called Bookmans’, where the books are about half cover, UBS they were more like 1/4 cover.  I got the latest in the Honor Harrington series for about $7 in hardcover.  We bought some used DVDs for $0.99 each.

      Used Book Superstore is simple.  Cheap metal adjustable shelving.  Plain paint on the walls.  Old, used fixtures.  Old flooring.  Nothing special but the price, but that’s the kicker for used books.  MOST of my books were bought used, and I care about price and condition.  I don’t care how fancy the bookstore is, I don’t want a cup of coffee, I don’t need schwag or other weird stuff.  Variety in selection and price should be the store’s principal objective.

      Additionally, most low cost stores need to be in low-cost retail locations.  Building 19s are not located in fancy malls or even terribly desirable neighborhoods.  These UBS locations seem similarly to be in low to mid priced retail, not high priced retail like in Cambridge.  That could be a lot of Lorem Ipsum’s problem- while they want to appeal to college students and other highly educated customers, their products can’t command the prices necessary to sustain the retail location most likely to be frequented by those customers, and worse, many of these customers are the very kinds that know about new paradigms like ebooks and are comfortable with trying those new technologies.

  7. When I checked out their site, I thought the store came across as cold and sterile.  Some might see neat as a pin, but for me, I want warmth and coziness.  Some of the best book stores I’ve been in-and return to – are small, enclosed, and meandering.  It’s like there’s a secret waiting around the next corner and usually, there is a great book I’ve never read around that corner. Cozy chairs are a must too. I dream of owning a book store so I’ve probably overthought this a bit:

  8. The comment about coffee bar reminds me of the Traveler Restaurant — better known by its “FOOD BOOKS” sign — which is a classic used-book warren combined with a decent (though not outstanding) roadside eatery. I doubt it could survive doing either business alone, or in a place where the real estate costs were higher, but the combination brings people in that neither would draw alone.

    So yes, maybe the answer is that book stores can no longer be generic bookstores. They need to find something that makes them a destination — a specialization or a co-location or something of that sort — to find _their_ audience rather than a general reading audience. You need to give folks a reason to spend time in the store looking for something they want to take home, rather than counting on your happening to have exactly what they came in looking for.

    Even then, it’s going to be tough to trade off being where the audience can afford to find you and being where you can afford to find the audience.

    Or you may need to travel to your audience. I know a number of people who sell books at SF conventions — new, used, collectable, other. Generally they aren’t making all that much more than the costs of the weekend, and set-up/tear down is a hassle, but they’re definitely moving stock.

    Note that this is a general retail problem, not just books. Storefront has always fought mail-order for price. Storefront’s advantages were the opportunity to examine the goods, immediate gratification (rather than waiting for delivery), expertise of the sales staff (when the store is willing to make that investment) and “recreational shopping” — the entertainment value of browsing the shelves to see what else is available and possible impulse sales therefrom. Online has cut into or raised the ante on some of these.; the storefront has to capitalize on the others or find new advantages.

  9. This is one of my favorite bookstores in the world- You see that red machine in the photo there, in front? It is filled with handwritten notes and other unique things. You put a quarter in and something special comes out in a plastic egg. Nothing like it. Its like a real life dispenser.

  10. The reality? A bookstore in the modern world of e-books & online retailers has to change. Having more readings & perhaps other kinds of activities will bring people in & maybe make them buy something.  Transforming a part of the space to a cafe or a bistro would help as well.  Heck, here in NYC we really don’t have too many bookstores with decent reading spaces or slacking spaces in them.  A place where one can sit down, relax & spend some time (and money) in.

    That said, practically all of the cafes in NYC are slowly turning into bars.  So there is no easy solution. Heck, I hate the fact cafes are turning into bars because I am tired of drinking alcohol as a social activity. I’d like there to be some cultural shift that truly values “third spaces” like cafes & such so there would be nice places & things to do other than going to a bar or restaurant.

  11. For me, the relationship I have is with the author, not their pimp (I say tongue-in-cheekly).  I’d much rather deal as closely with the author as I can, be it physical delivery or digital download.  Whenever possible, I’ll click through an author’s banner to help them get a bit more of a piece from Amazon, etc.

    There are only two things that I visit a store for, and that is to kill some time while browsing older, used books, or to get advice on something new to read that I don’t know about.

    In the old book case, it’s more of an “I’m bored and feel like browsing through piles of old stuff and maybe I’ll find something interesting”.

    In the “any suggestions?” case, I usually find that a few of the people working at the book store tend to be really, really into reading, and are always happy to try and turn you on to something new and share their knowledge.  I find that I’m more and more replacing that sharing with online communities, especially since it’s just so much more convenient.

  12. The library system in St. Louis County just somehow passed a tax increase to revamp the libraries. Not to make it better for readers, but to reconfigure the library buildings to hold fund raising events. I used to go to a bookstore three times a week. Since Kindle and now iPad, I haven’t been in three years. 

    1. I’m not sure where you’re getting this info about “fund raising events”.  It sounds more like the branch libraries (like most branch libraries) need tech upgrades to keep up with public demand:

      “Proponents said that the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems worked poorly in most branches and that upgrading electrical systems to meet new computer demands would be impractical compared with new construction.”

  13. If Cambridge is still limited to the one public restroom hidden on the second floor of the Coop, the solution is to convert LI into a pay-toilet location, and offer books for sale to those who need something to read while inside.

  14. I’ve probably walked past them many times but I never realized they were anything other then a used book store.  I usually hit Rodney’s or Seven Stars in Central.

  15. One store in our area. Alabama Booksmith.
    Make’s it’s bling from signed first edition copies of books.
    You might want to contact them to find out how they get authors to sign books for their store. It’s a very small shop. But they have authors speak and sign books Including David Sedaris…the location is very tiny.
    And they have a web site for their signed books..linked here.
    Browsing their selections they have cook books signed and other things (including some bookplate signed Harper Lee–“To Kill a Mockingbird”). They even William Gibson first eds…signed. And the thing is that most of those signed books are selling for retail prices, except for rare ones.

    I think most authors are book lovers and would support local stores with signing.

  16. What I wish is a way to somehow purchase an e-book from a brick and mortar store.  I so value the experience of being in a bookstore – of looking at the new book recommendations, maybe talking to staff, doing some browsing for something based on interesting groupings of topics… but the reality is, I basically only read books I can carry around on my phone now.  Being able to always have my book(s) with me wherever I am is just too damn convenient. 

    I haven’t bought a physical novel in over two years, yet I read something 3-10 books a month. I really want to be able to support a physical bookstore by pulling out my phone and, I don’t know, scanning a QR code or something to automatically purchase and download to my phone.  I KNOW these places have value, and it’s frustrating not to be able to express that with appropriate monetary support.

  17. I’d argue for a coffee / beer / bistro to be part of the book store. In the 90s when all bookstores were pushing espressos  one lone book store in Dallas went above and beyond with exquisite beers. They didn’t stock the American brews. It was all imported stuff, and at $7 or more a beer there was no risk of an idiot sitting around drinking to get drunk. But it was fun to drink a hard to find German beer while reading Agatha Christie. Sadly, that bookstore lasted only 3 years. They took a lease in a dying strip mall and were doomed from the start because of their location.

  18. Daunt books here in London has done a fantastic job.  They worked hard on their inventory quality, and it paid off.  If I’m getting a book, I call them and allow them to order it in.

  19. this is why I look at  book reviews on Amazon. .  . then call up my local indie bookstore and order the titles I want. 

    as far as pricing strategies – I don’t mind paying more for a brand spankin’ new hardback or even a brand new paperback. But raggedy old paperbacks should be cheap, like $4 or less. if you are opening up a bookstore to make some fast money, I think you are in the wrong business.

    anyone have an e-mail or a twitter for this guy?  I’ll tell him about

    I started it w/another blogger buddy, we provide bookstores with promo cards for books, and the cards feature blurbs from book review bloggers. Innovative, cheap, neat. gives bloggers a voice beyond the internet, gives bookstores some nifty marketing stuff.

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