Bruce Coombs Surveys an Eclectic Blend of Businesses
Turning the Page
The word ‘ephemeral’ means lasting for a short time, which is odd, considering one definition of ‘ephemera’ — and how long some of it has been kicking around.
“Ephemera is old paper — it could be postcards, newspapers, old magazines, sheet music, World War I and World War II posters, movie posters, Civil War correspondence, trading cards,” said Bruce Coombs, owner of both Heritage Surveys and Heritage Books.
The Southampton-based surveying firm, which has been working with developers, architects, and engineers, has been around since 1977 — so it’s anything but ephemeral — while the book business, spawned from a need by Coombs to house his massive collection of used books and memorabilia, is a more recent entity.
“Most of the people who work in this business do it part time,” he said of the bookstore, which has both a physical location, a stone’s throw north on Route 10 at the former Southampton Library, and a robust online presence at heritagebks.com. “I’ve gotten to the age where I’m buying less and selling more.”
Coombs didn’t start his career in either land surveying or old books. He enrolled in the forestry program at Paul Smith’s College in New York, but went to work for the U.S. Postal Service in Long Island shortly after.
Occasionally, he’d visit his sister in the Pioneer Valley, and he liked the area, so eventually he procured a transfer to the Amherst Post Office and enrolled at UMass. Soon after, in the early 1970s, he started working at Huntley Associates, a Northampton-based surveying company. After advancing in that firm and managing one of its offices, he decided to open his own company, and Heritage was born in 1976.
He worked out of a small office on Route 10 in Southampton until 1985, when he outgrew the space and purchased a 13-acre property about a mile south on College Highway. The idea was to grow slowly and steadily, and to focus on surveying rather than engineering. By doing so, he continued, he found that other engineering firms were willing to hire Heritage to conduct surveying for their projects.
“There are engineering firms we’ve worked with for many years; we’ve worked with some engineers for as much as 30 years,” he said. “A lot of engineering firms don’t have a survey contingent, and they like the work we do, so they’re ongoing clients; there are several in Western Mass., and Eastern and Central Mass. as well.”
While he intended to concentrate on surveying rather than engineering, he went on, “in order to do surveying successfully, to be the best at it, you need to do some engineering, and you need to be knowledgable about a lot of other professions, including the legal profession, planning and zoning, and landscape architecture.”
The firm’s growing reputation won jobs at Westover Air Reserve Base, Westfield-Barnes Municipal Airport, Baystate Medical Center’s Hospital of the Future expansion, the Basketball Hall of Fame, and work for the Springfield Redevelopment Authority at myriad sites.
Coombs has been in the business long enough to see surveyors transition from steel tape to electronic total stations, which allow the operator to control the instrument from a distance via remote control, to GPS units that connect to satellites — progress that has reduced crews on a project from three or four to one or two.
At the same time, Coombs was collecting old books — lots of them, to the point where he opened a shop, Heritage Books, in the same building that houses Heritage Surveys.
Actually, he collects both books and ephemera — again, a catch-all term for all sorts of printed, often collectible materials. Eventually, his collection and bookstore were outgrowing their space.
The answer to this problem came in the form of the former Southampton Library, which was built in 1904. When the property went up for sale, he put in a bid, purchased the building, and gradually began moving most of the books to the new site. At the same time, he undertook a major renovation and expansion of the Heritage Surveys property.
Today, Coombs’ office is still strewn with shelves and drawers filled with books, ephemera, and other items, including his own great-grandfather’s handwritten Civil War record, as well as numerous plaques, busts, and other images of Presidents Lincoln and Washington, who were, he likes to point out, both surveyors.
“I like things that are nostalgic, graphical, colorful,” he said, holding up, as one example, well-preserved sheet music (“New York and Coney Island Cycle March Two-step,” by E.T. Paull) adorned with colorful illustrations of the historic fairgrounds in the 1890s.
Perhaps the most striking collectible sits on a table in the library: a large ferris wheel — with a working motor and lights — made in the 1930s from about 200,000 medical applicator sticks; he discovered the damaged relic, and some accompanying model circus wagons, and had them all restored for display in the bookstore.
This emphasis on the past is accessible in a thoroughly modern way, a website that links to several e-commerce outlets for Coombs’ collection, including eBay, Biblio, Alibris, and Amazon. Some 30,000 books and other items are searchable online. For the rest, buyers have to visit the old library.
That they can find so much online, though, is a major change in the way used-book dealers operate, connecting hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. and overseas, he noted. “Sales of books and ephemera have gone over to the Internet, and it certainly has changed things.”
Coombs is making some changes as well, mainly to downsize his collection. For 18 years, he’d maintained a 520-square-foot storage unit in the Eastworks basement up the road in Easthampton, with shelves reaching eight feet tall, loaded with books. The rental probably cost him close to $40,000 over that time, yet the materials in it weren’t nearly that valuable, so he eventually moved everything out.
“We took 350 boxes to the Salvation Army in Westfield, and kept some things and blended them into our collection,” he said, noting that he still has plenty of overflow inventory in a six-car garage, but may gradually empty that as well.
“People ask when I’ll retire,” he said with a laugh, “but when you run two businesses — the survey business and a book business — it’s difficult to retire.”
Thus, the next chapter in an intriguing dual career begins.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]