After converting a 30-year-old Chevy G20 van into the Twenty Stories bookmobile in 2017, Alexa Trembly and Emory Harkins drove around Los Angeles sweltering through summer highs, some days struggling to sell as many as three books. While relocating in 2018 to Rhode Island, where Harkins grew up, their van broke down in the desert of New Mexico. Several months into running a bookshop at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, in 2019 they faced a period with double rent after moving to the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence. Despite its hurdles, Twenty Stories has curated a monthly selection of 20 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
“We carry, normally, one dystopic novel each month, but not in March,” said Trembly by phone as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic escalated. “Maybe it felt too real.”
Once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first case of coronavirus in Rhode Island on Tuesday, March 3, Trembly and Harkins began to implement precautions at their bookstore. Maintaining regular business hours, they wiped down their counters with sanitizer and asked customers to use contactless payments when possible. The following week, on Monday, March 9, Governor Gina Raimondo announced a state of emergency. Two days later, she discouraged events with more than 250 people. Trembly said she understood the warnings as a matter of large gatherings rather than about staying open.
“Business seemed to be the same as usual,” said Harkins, “maybe a little busier.”
“People were coming in a lot, kind of saying, ‘Oh, I need to stock up on books. We don’t know what’s going to happen,’” said Trembly. “There was a lot more up in the air at that point.”
On Thursday, March 12, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza revoked entertainment licenses across the city, shuttering movie theaters and concert venues. When Twenty Stories opened the following morning, Trembly and Harkins were prepared to host an evening celebration for Andrew Altschul’s novel The Gringa, published by Melville House Books earlier in the week. Within hours though, Harkins said, their assessment of the risks caused them to change plans.
“We have a wide age range of customers who come to our events,” said Harkins, “and we just felt a responsibility to not have those people interact with each other.”
“That’s been a really big hurdle and struggle,” said Trembly, “not just for businesses, but for everyone right now.”
After discussing with Altschul, visiting from Fort Collins, Colorado, and moderator Darcie Dennigan, a resident of Providence, Twenty Stories announced the event would take place online instead. Altschul drove to Providence from Worcester, Massachusetts, following a cancelled talk at the College of the Holy Cross, and participated in an Instagram Live video stream with Trembly and Harkins in an otherwise empty bookstore. Dennigan joined from home.
“We usually meet the authors we have events with, and we either shake hands or hug,” said Harkins. “It was strange because we were bumping elbows and keeping distance even while we were putting on this event together.”
In July 2018, Belletrist, an online book club run by actress Emma Roberts and producer Karah Preiss, welcomed Trembly and Harkins for an Instagram Live chat from their van. The video stream featuring Altschul and Dennigan was the first to be run by Twenty Stories. Citing Instagram’s analytics, Trembly said 250 people watched the conversation within 24 hours, five times greater than what she considers a good in-store turnout. Declining to share numbers, Harkins said the corresponding book sales were lower than what they would have expected if the evening had taken place in person and they’re working on ways to encourage purchases around future virtual events.
“It was kind of like a making-lemonade-out-of-lemons situation,” said Trembly.
Foot traffic at the bookstore remained steady on Saturday, March 14, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Rhode Island jumped from 14 to 20. Harkins said customers were looking for “quarantine books” as the necessity of social distancing set in. Two hours after opening the following morning, Trembly and Harkins made the choice to close their bookstore indefinitely. They donated a portion of the weekend’s sales to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank to assist children and families facing a time of food insecurity.
“Social media has always been a starting point for our store,” said Trembly about the relative ease of adapting their business to the Internet. “I know some retail stores, brick and mortar, don’t have online shops immediately, and I think that will definitely be a harder transition.”
After locking up, Trembly and Harkins expanded their online shop to include not only their current monthly curation, but also an array of children’s books, cookbooks and other works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. They’re in the process of updating their listing of art books and adding to the titles in stock. They’ve dropped off a few custom orders at front doors around Providence, but otherwise Harkins said he has been back and forth between the bookshop and local post offices. Anybody who places an order can ask for a dance move posted to Instagram Stories. Harkins said he and Trembly struggled for days with how to do a “dinosaur dance,” as a customer requested alongside Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote. Trembly said she and Harkins are also investing time in Palm Leaf, an online periodical they created in 2017. Hosted on the Twenty Stories website, the initiative features a range of literary interviews and contributed writing.
“We’re optimistic people and we’re staying pretty optimistic,” said Trembly, “but the longer it goes on, this anxiety builds a little bit.”
In December 2019, Twenty Stories hired two part-time booksellers, the first staff besides the co-founders. They haven’t worked since the bookstore shut. To cope with the crisis, Trembly and Harkins said they might assess the low-interest federal disaster loans approved by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“We’re anticipating at least a 50% reduction in sales as long as our shop on Ives Street remains closed,” said Harkins.
One week after closing their storefront, Trembly and Harkins emailed the Twenty Stories mailing list to encourage support by shopping online, placing special orders, attending virtual events, purchasing a gift card or even writing a review. They said they remain in touch with neighbors, other booksellers, and local restaurants, retailers and small businesses as they confront an incomparable experience, recognizing how many friends and colleagues are caught too.
“The amazing thing about Providence is all of the small businesses really do care about each other, like even more than ever,” said Trembly. “I don’t think people see it as much as being competitors as much as being a community.”
When Trembly and Harkins settled on Exquisite Mariposa by Fiona Alison Duncan as their most recent fiction book-club selection, they anticipated sitting with customers on Sunday, March 29 for a late-morning gathering accompanied by a spread of baklava from Aleppo Sweets, a Syrian bakery and cafe next door. Instead, they replaced the in-person discussion of Duncan’s novel, which The Los Angeles Review of Books called “a quest for the Real in the age of Instagram,” and made plans for future events, using online video conferencing hosted by Zoom.
“Everyone always hates on social media,” said Trembly, “but in this context it’s really cool to see how it could keep that community — kind of hold that community space now.”