Throughout tough economic times and a rise in new technology, one area of the arts that has especially struggled is the bookselling business. Stories of people slowly trading a trip to a bookstore for a click of “download” or “order now” are common, and even the book selling super-powers are being brought to their knees (RIP Borders). In a world of e-books and publishers publicly duking it out with online vendors, a storefront with glossy covers in the window is a sight for sore eyes. So with all of the hype about the decline of the “picking out a physical book for yourself” experience, the question remains: How are bookstores in our little state really doing?
For such a small state, each region of Rhode Island has its own score of distinct, independent shops. Eastern RI’s Barrington Books, for example, has readings by nationally renowned authors, while South County’s Wakefield Books keeps itself current with staff recommendations for in-store picks.
One of the most well-known bookstores in the Providence area is Symposium Books. For Symposium owner Anne Marie Keohane, Rhode Island offered the perfect setting for a book business in 2004 when Symposium’s original Westminster Street location opened. “We had been working in the publishing and book business [in New York], respectively, and decided to venture out and open our own bookstore and wholesale business in Providence. The city was being revitalized at the time and we immediately fell in love with the old architecture, cozy feel, beauty of the city, and the lovely people.”
Keohane acknowledges that the general business environment has not been especially hospitable for independent booksellers. “It’s no secret, the future of bookselling was shaky for a few years, but we ducked and wove and got nimble and changed with the market,” she said. She says that the key is to stand out and stay interesting. “We’re all about keeping you guessing about what treasures you may find when you walk through the door. We carefully curate our inventory to be unique, quirky, fun and thoughtful.” Symposium recently opened a second store in East Greenwich and Keohane says business is going well.
Another store that calls Providence home is Wayland’s Square’s Books on the Square, which is faring similarly to its counterpart. “Business is moving merrily along. The annual slower periods are slow and holidays are crazy. We are holding our own in this difficult business climate,” said Carol from Books on the Square.
She credited some of Books on the Square’s continued success to the tumultuous battles occurring between writers, readers and Amazon. “People have begun to recognize the value of their local indie bookseller,” she said. “We are a resource and knowledge base. As readers, we can suggest titles. Discuss different authors. We can relate and cross genres to help find the perfect read.”
Perhaps more off-the-beaten path is Allison B. Goodsell, Rare Books. Located in Kingston, Goodsell offers a wide variety of rare and used books in an authentic setting. The store has a worn, wooden sign simply marked “Rare and Used Books.” Upon entering the store, a patron is struck by the old world charm — while a true reader is struck by the undeniable smell of old books. Her collection boasts Rhode Island history, children’s books, gardening and natural history, architecture, design, art, cookbooks, Americana, classic literature and poetry, maritime and military history.
Goodsell resorted to collaboration to stay fresh and relevant as time goes by. “We are happy to share our space with Sandy Neuschatz offering vintage postcards, old maps, bottles, baseball cards and more Rhode Island history. And recently, the Brown Group Realty established an office within the store. This diversity and the addition of a few general antiques keeps the store fresh and new.”
Symposium and Books on the Square both found that selling novelty items as well as books helped draw customers in. “Some bookstores have gone into gifts or cafes to increase sales. All carry sidelines. We try and limit our sidelines to book or writing related items,” said the Books on the Square coordinator.
The apprehension and eventual acceptance toward novelty items was echoed by Symposium’s Keohane, who never wanted to sell anything but books. “To stop ‘Main Street America’ from declining further and to encourage purchasing from all local stores, people realized that they have to spend their dollar locally. In return, it’s up to us to keep it interesting and worthwhile for them to come shop.” Symposium now carries bookmarks, mugs and imported chocolates. “We’re working on a line of t-shirts and Rhode Island items and are giddy about ordering for the fall and winter.”
The common attitude among the booksellers is one that will bring joy to bibliophiles across the state: optimism. For Symposium, “Those who switched to e-readers are coming back bit by bit. The newness is over and folks are realizing that at the end of the day, it’s still screen time with a reading device and just not cozy like a physical book. Symposium is always glad to have the prodigal readers return!” The general consensus is that small Rhode Island bookstores are not going anywhere and will continue to be a beacon to those who still believe there is nothing better than a good old-fashioned paper book.