“I love seeing the bookshops and meeting the booksellers — booksellers really are a special breed. So, it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it.”
It is tempting to accept this quote from Mary Ann Shaffer’s historical novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, as truth; it makes the world seem like a warm and uncomplicated place — or at least a complicated place with warm, uncomplicated corners to escape to. Unfortunately, the world of bookstores is less glamorous than the books on their shelves suggest, and most booksellers in Providence struggle to find the time to actually read, in spite of their shared love of books (that much remains untainted).
As it turns out, there still exists a breed of people that can resist the lure of Amazon, with its omnipresence, dirt-cheap prices and near-immediate shipping; a breed of people who choose to get up and make the trip to the bookstore around the corner. With the survival of this breed comes the survival of communities of booksellers and booklovers, bound to each other by the written word. It shouldn’t be surprising that this community has survived and thrived, but it is. And it needs to be preserved.
Independent bookstores are communities of their own, but they are also integral pieces of the larger communities they are a part of — the bookstores in a city can reveal much about the city itself. Providence is no exception to this: Its bookstores thrive on art and artists, on idealistic college students who need the warmth to survive or who are just finding their way.
Whether it is for a glimpse into the spirit of Providence, the community you will stumble upon or for a temporary escapist sanctuary, these three independent Providence bookstores are definitely worth your day and your dollar.
Twenty Stories is a small bookstore on Ives Street in Fox Point, conceptualized so that you never have to have a “bad first date” with a book again. The owners, Alexa Trembly and Emory Harkins, are both “writers and huge readers.” They graduated from college together, worked at different jobs for a while and then quit to open their store when they realized they weren’t happy there. “We just wanted to be around books and create a writing community,” Harkins said.
Every month, Trembly and Harkins personally curate 20 new titles to feature in the store, lending the store its name. “We definitely read a lot of them, and then we do a lot of research. … It’s a lot of sifting through, we look at hundreds of titles every month,” Harkins said, describing how the pair curates each month’s selection. “We try to make sure nothing’s overlapping too much, and that there’s something in there for everyone.”
Apart from the 20 stories of each month, they also keep previous month’s selections in the store, and they’re always willing to help you find the perfect match. Harkins sometimes spends an hour with customers, “just recommending books to them and getting to know them.
Shopping at Twenty Stories is an extremely personalized experience, and it is therefore entirely impossible to replicate. As Harkins said, “You get to talk to a real human, you get to have a conversation, you get to connect about reading and writing.”
Walking into Paper Nautilus is like walking into a time capsule. Located on South Angell Street near Wayland Square, it is one of those rare places that you simply can’t be inside without having a profound sense of the history surrounding you — of the unquantifiable wisdom somehow contained within yellowing pages and refurbished leather. There are shelves stocked with old, rare books and locked glass cupboards full of especially precious ones. There are inscriptions from different decades and pictures that cannot be replicated. And there’s Kristin Sollenberger, the woman who has owned Paper Nautilus for the last 24 years.
Sollenberger’s love affair with books is not a whirlwind romance, but rather a long, steady journey that started with a love of art and books. It began when she was a student at RISD working at Cellar Stories in Downtown Providence.
“I was a very frequent customer and then one day (the owner) just offered me a job to fill in for one of his employees,” she said. Having graduated with a painting degree from RISD and lacking many job prospects, Sollenberger continued to work at the bookstore. The owner “eventually opened another shop here at Wayland Manor and I worked there too, and then he closed that branch, so I bought his inventory and moved it here,” she said.
Beyond its books, Paper Nautilus also displays art exhibits that change frequently, and Sollenberger’s own work is often displayed.
Apart from regular customers with whom the owner has long-standing personal relationships, Paper Nautilus also attracts people from outside of Providence. It has become a landmark for lovers of books, history and beautiful things.
Symposium Books is an indie store in Downtown Providence, which sells vinyl records in addition to a carefully curated collection of new, used and bargain books. The tables in the store never look the same for too long, adapting to the social and political climate of the times, among other things, said employee Scott McCullough, who has worked there for 17 years.
If you walk into the store now, you’ll find several books on feminism and gender issues on display in homage to Women’s History Month, and there’s a table full of political books that has been “very important in the last four years,” according to McCullough. “It’s a constant give-and-take with the community. “We see what the customers want, what they’re reacting to, things like that,” he added.
Symposium Books sits on Westminster Street, in the heart of Downtown, making it a central part of the Providence community. A customer in the store called it her “go-to,” not only because it’s close to where she lives but because she loves the layout and curation of Symposium. Although many of the booksellers did note that the footfall has decreased over the course of the pandemic, this customer said that going to a bookstore “is an outing; it’s an occasion, and especially during COVID, I feel like we need that ‘treat yourself’ time.”
If three magical corners of the city aren’t enough, Providence is also home to several other independent bookstores like Cellar Stories and Books on the Square. Each of these bookstores have added their own special brand of warmth to Providence, and each is as integral to the city as the next. As Harkins from Twenty Stories said, “if you buy from one of the big guys, you’re not going to have that personal connection — and you’re also not going to be able to keep something that’s in your community in the community. … It will leave eventually if you don’t support it.”
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