Columns > Published on October 29th, 2013

Indie Bookstore Spotlight: Derby Square Bookstore, Salem, MA

Address: 215 Essex St. Salem MA, 01970

Hours: Monday to Saturday: 9 AM to 9 PM, Sunday 11 AM to 9 PM

Food/Drink: None are offered within the store. It’s just the books, ma’am.

On the Web: The Derby Square Bookstore maintains a very limited web presence. A Facebook page exists, as well as a Tripadvisor listing.

History: The Derby Square Bookstore opened almost 40 years ago, and has since made its business by buying up the inventory of struggling stores and selling it at a lower price. As such, the employees of the store are practically oracular in their predictions about the book industry. I can recall a conversation with a worker there from about four years ago, during which he told me to watch for the impending closure of Borders sometime in the very near future.    

Neighborhood: The Derby Square Bookstore is right in the heart of Salem, along the red painted line that leads visitors through the city to historic sites of the 1692 witch trials. It can be a pretty chaotic place from September until the end of October, but the crowds peter out after Halloween. If you enjoy fabulous costumes and carnivals, however, you might want to make your pilgrimage to the store at exactly that time of year; just be prepared for difficulties parking and finding lodging if you’re from out of town.

Why It’s Awesome: Obsessively tidy or claustrophobic people may feel a bit uncomfortable in this store, but there’s something deeply charming about it. The books are stacked in teetering piles with only the vaguest inclination towards any sort of organizational system. Since this is Salem, Massachusetts we’re talking about, you’ll find almost an entire section dedicated to the town’s favorite native scribe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as one of the biggest selections of Occult and New Age books I’ve ever seen. Just be careful not to tug too hard on the wrong spine—you might start an avalanche. Yelp reviewers have likened the Derby Square shop to the bookstore in The Neverending Story, and that’s a somewhat fair comparison.                 

One thing that must be noted, however, is exactly how many tourists come through this bookstore’s doors. It’s difficult to overemphasize how crowded this place can get in the high months. If you think pirates, witches, and tales of ghostly horrors are interesting, Salem is probably a town you’ll enjoy visiting. But the sheer volume of people attracted to the area each Halloween can be wearying, and the bookstore staff can get a bit, shall we say, snippy as the store fills to the point where walking between aisles becomes nearly impossible. For a less festive, but also less tiresome experience, I’d suggest planning a visit sometime between May and August.   

Verdict: The Derby Square Bookstore is one of the most unique book shops I've ever been in. These people absolutely do not believe in shelving, and the result is a physical maze of literature. Whatever your tastes, it's worth a quick peek inside just to say you've been there.

Bottom center photo by Y'amal. All other photos by Leah Dearborn.

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About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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