In an age when local bookshops are disappearing, a group of independent bookstores in Providence are flourishing thanks to the commitment of a unique set of booksellers and a vibrant literary community to keep the box stores and the online giants at bay.
In 2005, Brent and Jenna LeGault were seeking an affordable city near the water to settle in after leaving post-Katrina New Orleans. A four-day visit to Providence filled with snow and street art put an end to their search, and after moving, Brent opened Ada Books (717 Westminster Street) on the city’s West Side.
After having managed a large bookstore in New Orleans that catered in part to the tastes of the city’s tourists, LeGault gambled on his sense that Providence could support an “impractical” bookstore curated to reflect his passions, which extend from literary fiction and graphic novels to film and history, and found a receptive clientele.
He describes the shop, named after the Nabokov novel, as a “living, breathing creature that changes all the time.” In addition to small press publications, zines, classics, and rare finds, LeGault stocks work by local literary luminaries including URI professor Mary Cappello, and Brown professors John Edgar Wideman and Forrest Gander. Many of these writers are as likely to be found browsing the bookshelves as gracing them, and Ada hosts the Publicly Complex reading series organized by writer Kate Schapira, who marvels at LeGault’s “enormous and ongoing interest in and support for the series – ordering books, buying snacks, keeping the store open late.” LeGault also hosts events with musicians and comics artists like Gabrielle Bell and former Providence resident Nate Powell.
Books on the Square
Rather than open a new bookstore, in 2007 Merc Clifton rescued the Wayland Square neighborhood fixture Books on the Square (417 Angell Street). Clifton has maintained the store’s casual atmosphere and commitment to local writers, says Jennifer Doucette, who has been the store’s manager for six years. “People really make themselves at home here, lingering in the nooks and on the couches and leaving coffee rings” in odd places.
Regular customers run the gamut from local college students and faculty to the children who attend thrice-weekly story times led by singing staff member and Gamm Theater resident actor Christopher Byrnes.
Doucette seeks out local authors for readings, including poet and doctor Christine Montross, who read from her acclaimed memoir Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab and Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who read from her novel Somebody’s Daughter, based on her year as a Fulbright Scholar in Korea. Both were impressed by how well-publicized and well-attended the events were, and Lee, who lives nearby, says she loves “having such a sweet bookstore in the neighborhood.”
People often wonder why a bookstore located on the second floor of 111 Matthewson Street in downtown Providence is called Cellar Stories.
When Mike Chandley and a friend opened the store 1981, it did occupy a cellar, but as the friend dropped out of the business and Chandley’s inventory grew to over 60,000 volumes, more space in a new location was needed. Now billed as the “largest used and rare bookstore in the smallest state in the US,” Cellar Stories specializes in Rhode Island and New England history, art and architecture, modern first editions, poetry, and mathematics.
While Chandley’s degree is in English literature and he is partial to poetry and drama, diversity – in both the inventory and the customer base – is what he likes best about the store. Rarities from book sales, auctions, estate sales, and the libraries of retiring professors populate the shelves in Cellar Stories, and collectors and bibliophiles from near and far rave about the stock. One online reviewer described the store as “not a tenth of the size” of the Strand bookstore in New York City “but at least ten times as good.”
Although bibliophiles might be alarmed to know that RISD students comb the stock for texts to use as found materials in art projects, chances are Chandley will prevent rare gems from becoming the legs of an industrial design student’s chair.
In the 1990s, Chandley owned a second store on the East Side called the Providence Bookstore Café, which was managed by Kristin Sollenberger, a painter with a degree from RISD. When Chandley closed that shop in 1996, Sollenberger bought his inventory and opened Myopic Books at 5 South Angell Street, a bright space with big windows, shelves of books punctuated by flea market finds, comfortable seating, and a garden courtyard.
Myopic’s inventory reflects the density of college students in the city, with an emphasis on scholarly books, literature, and books on the arts. Local playwright Deborah Smith calls Myopic her “go-to” for its consistently “smart selection of theater-related books that are also well-priced.”
Regard is a two-way street at Myopic; as much as customers appreciate Sollenberger’s stock, she appreciates their acuity. “My customers are very smart and clever people!” she says.
Sollenberger relies on writer William Walsh, author of Without Waxx and Questionstruck, to curate readings featuring local and national writers, while she works with a friend to curate art installations in her Wakefield, RI outlet.
Scott McCullough and Anne Marie Keohane opened Symposium Books (240 Westminster Street) in 2004, just as that stretch of Downcity was welcoming a slate of new shops and businesses. With a wide selection of new scholarly titles available at a fraction of their list price, Symposium is particularly friendly to the cash-starved and curious. As a customer browsing in the store said recently, “I come in here and spend six dollars on a great book – that’s the price of a sandwich!”
McCullough and Keohane seek out new and used books as well as publisher’s remainders and lots offered at auction to keep prices low. While the owners are often off-site managing their wholesale operation or the Boston branch, local staff works closely with Providence writers to schedule readings and events. The poet Michael Gizzi was instrumental in starting up a reading series at the store, and the poet and editor of Burning Deck Press Keith Waldrop has read there, as well as writers Brian Evenson, Joanna Howard, and Providence Journal editor Elliot Krieger.