Books: A community’s independent shop, and life without Borders

A customer reads in the front section of Books on the Square, an independent book shop in the Wayland Square neighborhood on Providence, R.I. Photo by John Doucette.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Wayland Square neighborhood on this city’s East Side is a great place to be a book hunter. The area has two terrific book shops, the independent bookstore Books on the Square and the rare and used shop Myopic Books.

I visited both while I was home in Rhode Island for the holidays. This post focuses on Books on the Square, and another post on Myopic Books will follow in the next few days,

I got the dime tour over the holidays from Chris Byrnes, a bookseller and leader of three of the shop’s weekly story times. Video follows:

This past summer, two Borders locations in the area closed. In July, Books on the Square manager Jennifer Doucette (no relation) told Publishers Weekly that Borders had not had much effect on business:

Our store is really blessed. We’re in a great neighborhood with lots of families walking around. We’re up, just a little bit, and we just renewed our lease for another five years.

Since the Borders closed, business has been strong. Aside from the book store at Brown University, Byrnes noted:

When it comes to Providence, we’re kind of it for new books.

Bookseller John Duvernoy.

Brooke Huminski, a regular customer at Books on the Square, shops.

The shop is designed for community involvement, and it hosts story times for kids, a variety of reading groups, a discussion of ideas called the Socrates Cafe, and even community meetings. Byrnes said Doucette put the central book racks on wheels, so they can be moved aside for large events. And the shop has a large children’s section, a point of pride. Byrnes said:

We want to create a place where people can relax and not be part of the rat race. They can come and pick up a book or a magazine.

Brooke Huminski, a graduate student studying social work, is a regular. She said:

I love this bookstore. There’s a personal feel to it and a lot of community events.You can find things in it from best sellers to idiosyncratic books.

Customer Bill Dilworth added:

I like supporting local businesses, and this has books you might not see at chain stores.

I asked Dilworth about being in neighborhood with two great bookstores. He replied:

It’s impoverishing. If I go into either of these places just to look, I almost invariably get something I didn’t intend to purchase.

Books on the Square is at 471 Angell St. on Providence’s East Side. Find out more about the shop via its website at this link. A post on Myopic Books is forthcoming.

Customer Bill Dilworth checks out the selection at Books on the Square.

Booksellers Chris Byrnes and Richard Scott.

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9 thoughts on “Books: A community’s independent shop, and life without Borders

  1. keernmah@gmail.com says:

    I don’t eat at McDonald’s or Olive Garden. I prefer small local
    restaurants where they’re more likely to whip you up something
    special, from scratch, using the freshest ingredients. I like
    shopping for veggies at farmers’ markets, too. So I get the locavore
    thing.

    But I don’t get it when it’s applied to the business of selling books.
    Unlike the indie restaurant, the indie bookstore is selling the very
    same product as B&N or Amazon, but with the dual disadvantages of
    limited selection and 30% higher prices. For the very same product.

    OK, I’ve heard the arguments about personalized service, etc. But
    most corner bookshops employ fewer than 6 clerks, total. At Amazon
    you can link to author interviews (hello, Earl Swift), professional
    reviews and scores of appraisals from fellow readers with similar
    tastes. Please explain the math that proves 6 opinions have more
    value than 60. Then explain it to your friendly local statistician or
    professional pollster.

    I can’t find any logic for the “woe, the indie bookseller” argument
    that goes beyond nostalgia and simple, craven emotionalism.

    I’m a lifelong, avid, eclectic reader, as are two other members of my
    family. We are convinced that we buy far more books since we hooked
    up with Amazon many years ago, and even more now that we’re on
    Kindles. We use a common Amazon account so we can easily share them
    — just like the paper versions, but without the coffee splashes, torn
    pages, stray hairs and food stains. And we’re not buying books for the
    tactile experience of rubbing paper and ink with our fingers. We buy
    them for their intellectual and entertainment value. Period.

    (I loved the two sections of the video where Chris Byrne pretends that he’s not quite sure what all these fancy Nooks and Kindles are, as if he’s only vaguely aware of them. Nobody selling books for a living in 2012 could possibly be that thick. It’s kinda like rolling back the calendar 100 years and listening to the local blacksmith.)

    As for the corner nook’s “pubic space/shared experience” argument,
    that’s nothing the library doesn’t offer. Or the corner bar or coffee
    shop. But I’m out there looking for new books, not new friends.

    There seems to be a commonality of belief among the “Occupy Whatever”
    forces and the “woe, the indie bookseller” crowd, a belief that any
    entity that is large and successful must be inherently evil and
    untrustworthy. Well, trust this: Your small indie bookseller is just
    as interested in profit as Amazon or B&N, and has every right to be.
    They’re simply playing on *some people’s* emotions to further the
    illogical belief that we who read books have a moral obligation to
    subsidize an outmoded delivery system and business model. Reality
    check: The more money I save buying books, the more cash I have
    available to buy more books.

    At about this point in the debate the old “buggy whip” metaphor should
    come into play, but I already brushed against it above, and it’s become hackneyed. For good reason, I guess — after all, how many of us hitch up Old Ned on a Saturday
    morning and ride him down to the local indie bookshop.

    • Thanks for commenting. I can’t speak for Chris, but I have nothing against electronic readers. Blame me for including the mentions in the video since I edited it. I certainly did not mean to derail the Nook’s momentum as a viable text-delivery option. Additionally, Books on the Square sells ebooks at its site.

      You suggest that Amazon sells the “the very same product” as an independent bookstore. When you buy at a brick and mortar store in your community you are buying the book and also sustaining the brick and mortar, or the rent, the staff, the parking lot, profit for the owner, a business that collects state sales taxes, etc. You may pay more. However, the value of a specific product is a price that a specific consumer agrees to pay for it through a specific retailer, not just (or, at least, not always) the rock-bottom low price.

      If I can do so, I prefer to hold a book in hand before I buy it. I prefer to buy new books from Prince Books, our local independent bookstore in Norfolk, Va. If I can’t do that, I prefer to hunt at a used bookseller, go to the library, or go to/call Barnes & Noble, before checking Bookfinder (a great service if you want to find used books) or Amazon (which also has a used book finder, though I’ve been burned by it a couple times). I’ve got nothing against Amazon. I use Amazon, but its product is not entirely the same as what an independent bookseller offers.

      The first time I went to Books on the Square, I really was interested in the children’s section because I have two young children. They do four “storytimes” a week. If I still lived in Rhode Island, my wife and I probably would try to go there with our girls. We’ve done story times at the Portsmouth, Va., library, but also at Barnes & Noble locations locally. We also like to take our children to Prince Books and let them pick out books. It’s just not the same with Amazon. This isn’t to knock Amazon, because the convenience and discounts are their selling point. What I’m suggesting is that Amazon and independent (brick and mortar) booksellers offer different products, different selling points. I also feel you are also responding not entirely to this post, but my previous post on spending more money locally, so I’ll add that I’d also rather spend money at a local Barnes & Noble that at Amazon, because they pay taxes in Virginia, collect sales taxes for the commonwealth, and pay my neighbors a salary, etc.

      Independent booksellers like Books on the Square offer a community to its customers and helps improve the wider community surrounding the store. They pay local salaries, taxes, fees, permits, business association dues, etc. They bring people to shopping areas that still are vital in cities and suburbs alike. This isn’t communism or trickery, or denying the power of the online or digital marketplace, but a real service and valuable product to people who like going to bookstores and like strong, interesting local communities.

      Brick and mortar bookstores have events, talks, signings, etc. I like having a place to go to those in my community and the communities I visit. Prince Books, for example, has had a number of events I’ve gone to and enjoyed in the past year. As a writer, I’ve been able to read my own work there even when I’ve had nothing for Prince Books to sell. My local bookstore supports local writers, including some of my friends who have written and published books. When I lived in Brooklyn, working as a freelancer, I did a lot of my writing at Community Bookstore in Park Slope (great place) and bought books there because of that, and I liked supporting them because I wanted them to be there. That’s part of my decision-making as a consumer, and part of the product independent bookstores offer.

      If Prince Books left Norfolk, my community would be a less interesting place to live. I think the same applies to Wayland Square. It’s a great bookstore because it’s not just a bookstore — it’s part of the community.

  2. keernmah@gmail.com says:

    Y’know, John, you could search the economic spectrum from Friedrich Hayek to Karl Marx and not find a single theoretician who would argue that it is the duty of the citizen to allocate his personal funds in a manner that facilitates maximum tax collection by the state. But, hey, if you think it makes economic and social sense, go for it.

    (I’d willingly pay state and local sales taxes on Internet purchases if required. It’s only fair. But our political leadership, both left and right, comes absolutely *unglued* in a fit of fear-mongering hyperbole whenever that is mentioned. That horse, sadly, is outta the barn.)

    Look, I was shopping at Prince Books while you were still chasing Rhode Island cheerleaders, back in the Cro-Magnon era when Prince was in a closet over in Selden Arcade and computers still came in a do-it-yourself box. Often in those days I had a hard time making the rent, but I still bought books — and when I was short, it never once dawned on me that I should ask Sarah Pishko for a subsidy. In return, I don’t feel any moral obligation to subsidize her fading business plan.

    As for the kiddies — we still buy hardbacks for our grandsons, who enjoy them, but the 4 year old is already handy with an iPad, and it’s pretty amazing. He’s already “cracking the code” and beginning to read on his own. He’s … 4.

    You have a decent argument that the bricks-and-mortars offer different sales points. Doubtless. But I’d still argue that no matter how you paint it, in the end the two books are exactly the same.

    As for the bookstore-as-community-hub argument, that’s subjective and you’re certainly welcome to your view. But as I said earlier, I only went there for the books. I never entered a bookstore looking to impress or be impressed, or to find new friends.

    And I consider writing in a bookstore (or a bar) to be a pretty close cousin to masturbating in a taxicab. I can’t say as I’m morally opposed to either activity, but both are functions that should be conducted in privacy.

    • Thanks for responding. Well, I never did all that well with cheerleaders. And, I don’t actually write in public places that much any more because the older I’ve gotten the more noise distracts me. But I can’t disagree with your preference but just say I have a different one. Thanks again for commenting.

  3. dorsonic says:

    Great conversation, guys — both of you. And no name-calling! I miss intelligent, quality, CALM discussions between holders of opposing points of view. On the web, in person, (we won’t even mention television), it’s a lost art….the art of conversation. Just like the, sigh, fading art of reading in general, whether it’s via nook or a book, and no matter where either is bought. Again, thanks for an enjoyable little read. (Oh, for what it’s worth, another fabulous on-line used-book site is AbeBooks.com…outtasight)

  4. keernmah@gmail.com says:

    In fairness …

    Enjoyed the debate, thanks. But wanted to let you know that the evil little shot about writing in public wasn’t directed solely, or even primarily, at you. Read with interest recently the interview with one of your cohorts who is in the habit of attempting to write in a bar. Please. Why not just wear a sign that says, “Look at me! I’m a … a … I’m a Writer!”

    Writing is not one of the performance arts — at least not until whatever you’re writing is completed. Papa H. loved saloons, but not for practicing his art. The fact that you no longer do so isn’t necessarily a function of age. It means you’re getting serious about what you’re doing.

    Best of luck with it.

  5. Regular Reader says:

    I lived in Wayland Square for years and shopped at BOTS almost weekly. I consider myself an average buyer (sometimes I buy–sometimes I don’t). The discounts they offer on books works for me and I have been there to see large crowds and small gatherings for both author readings and kids story time. I have spent anywhere from $1 for a used book to $80 for gift books.

    I may have missed something, but this article is not about Amazon v. independent booksellers and what makes me want to spend money is the ability to view a book and decide if I want to purchase it. Other reviews are meaningless for me and the first commenter’s remark about 60 appraisals being better than 6 doesn’t hold water since I’ve worked at companies that employ people specifically to blog and review items to boost sales.

    Thanks for the article on one of the great walkable neighborhoods of Providence. All of the businesses offer something unique and different. I have yet to find something comparable in my new location–but I’m trying!

  6. […] She even met her husband here in the store, when he showed up for a poetry reading and then bought a book. The store is doing well, she noted, in part due to the shuttering of Borders — similar to what I heard at an independent store in Rhode Island last year. […]

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