A New Chapter: Independent Bookstores in a Post-Borders Providence.

Providence Monthly, November 2011

In mid-September of 2011, Providence Place Mall lost a flagship retailer when Borders Books and Music closed its doors for good, liquidating its assets and shutting down 400+ stores. In the wreckage, 11,000 employees were left jobless and many communities across the United States lost the only brick-and-mortar bookstore available to them.

Analysts cited Borders' inability to create a business model that reflected the needs of the 21st century media consumer. Unlike their main rivals Barnes and Noble and Amazon, Borders lacked a branded e-reader and never figured out a way to sell digital music online. Their clunky website, misguided expansion of physical music in the age of the digital cloud, and a bad economy made Borders' death inevitable.

Lost within the wonky analysis and Monday morning hindsight of the so-called experts, the human story of Borders' demise was tossed off with pity quotes. But among the thousands of comments on blogs and news sites, a sarcastic plea emerged: Now that Borders is closed, may I have my independent bookstore back? You know, the one Borders helped put out of business in the first place?

Providence book lovers have been far luckier. From Wayland Square and Thayer Street into the heart of Downcity, four independent bookstores have held on -- even expanded -- in the face of unprecedented odds, navigating through a storm of declining readership, electronic readers and tablets, global mega-bookstore competitors, and a paralyzed economy that has left the state of Rhode Island dazed and confused.

Luckier still, the four independent bookstores to choose from (five, if you include one company with two locations) has each created its own unique look and feel and a depth of collections unmatched by any chain. Adding a high level of community involvement the public desperately craves, these four bookstores complement the passionate local movement that continues to expand throughout Providence.

As the largest independent seller of used books, Cellar Stories has become a Downcity institution over the past 26 years. Owner Michael Chandley, an expert in rare books and collectable ephemera, credits having a dedicated, loyal staff as a major factor for their success.

"We have been fortunate to have some long-term employees who know the stock well and [they] get to know the customers, as well," he says.

At over 70,000 volumes, one enters Cellar Stories needing a couple of minutes to gain bearings and map out a mental game plan to explore. With only the soft mumble of public radio above, the echo of footsteps, and the sweet smell of pine bookshelves, the passage of time at Cellar Stories feels suspended. The collection is balanced throughout the genres, with no snobbery or pretense. You would be just as likely to find a trashy rock and roll memoir as you would a Noam Chomsky volume on linguistics.

When asked to comment on the fate of Borders Books and Music, Chandley expressed optimism that Cellar Stories would see an increase in sales, but he added the familiar sentiment of regrets found online:

"[Ultimately] the demise of Borders is not a good thing for the book business," he says, noting the amount of independent new book sellers "who went out of business because of competition from Borders."

In the middle of Wayland Square, Myopic Books offers the laid-back, cozy vibe of a classic used bookstore. Clocking in at 25,000 volumes, Myopic lists their specialties on its website, hitting all of the college town staples, such as art, architecture, photography, local history, philosophy, and first editions. The bookstore is also known for its wide range of books on cooking and gardening. Their collection of criticism and critical theory is a fascinating trip, spanning decades, even centuries of thought and analysis of both individuals and literary movements.

Founded in 1996, Myopic Books has crafted a its stock through smart book buying, with a good eye for unique finds.  This writer remembers two items he deeply regrets passing up in the late 1990's (albeit as a graduate student low on funds): A first edition hardcover copy of John Berryman's The Dream Songs and Nick Drake's Fruit Tree box set, all five albums on vinyl.  Unique finds like this are not unusual at Myopic and rare gems abound. It's a nice reminder of how fun the "thrill of the hunt" used to be, before the Internet made almost everything available with just a few clicks.

Symposium Books and Books on the Square, both located in Providence, sell primarily brand-new books. Although the two stores are stylistically different in terms of the books they stock, both share a deep commitment to customer service and fostering local community.

It is this focus on the customer that has enabled Symposium Books to expand in one of the worst economic climates in Rhode Island history.  The flagship Westminister Street store, founded by Scott McCullough and Anne Marie Keohane in May of 2004, has the feel of an academic post-punk artist community, with William S. Burroughs classics, oversized art books, and a staggeringly cool collection of graphic novels sitting alongside poetry, critical theory, popular music, and politics. The shop is stocked with such interesting stuff, and priced so affordably, that it's almost impossible to leave empty handed. Symposium expanded in late 2004, opening a smaller shop on Thayer Street that captures a similar vibe in terms of its offerings. McCullough credits Symposium's success to its dedication to customers.

"We simply focus on our customers," he says. "We find, carry and display books in all subjects that they are interested in.  We are also very aware of our prices.  [Essentially] we provide an independent bookstore where you can browse, socially interact, and still get prices that are as good, or better, than you can get from Amazon.  As almost every book reader that we encounter tells us, browsing and buying in a bookstore is always better than browsing and buying online."

Symposium has embraced the Web, too, creating "stores" on Abe, Half.com, and more. By selling their stock both locally and globally, McCullough and his team is working to, in his words, "create something to supplement the in-store experience."

Since opening its doors in 1992, Books on the Square has become a Wayland Square institution. The bookseller's commitment to its customers and its community has helped make it one of the most beloved companies in Providence. In additional to the 20,000 titles available, the bookstore found a niche in creating fun, book-related events, including book signings, author readings and a wide variety of offerings for children, such as story times.

Books on the Square manager Jennifer Doucette speaks highly of the store's community ties:

"We are a highly visible community gathering space," she says. "Customers are always welcome to come in and browse without feeling under obligation [and] all of our events are open to the public and always free.  What better way to get to know your neighborhood bookstore than to pop in for a book club or children’s story time?"

After years of building its reputation as a good corporate citizen, Books on the Square employees have seen a rise in sales in the wake of Borders closing.

"We have already seen more new customers and received a myriad of praise for our customer service and smiles," says Doucette. "It’s nice to feel that we are being “discovered” by former Borders customers."

In addition to being an essential "brick-and-mortar" operation, the store has used 21st century social networking to get the word out for events and other news. Even their website has a community feel to it; Their in-house newsletter, up-to-date (and very well-written) staff picks list, and whole sections devoted to kids, author visits, and events all leave visitors with a cautious optimism regarding the future of local independent bookstores.

Indeed, the future for bookstores is murky. As electronic readers and tablets gain more and more converts, the inevitable rise in piracy might toss publishers into the same copyright swamp that record companies have spent over a decade slowly drowning in, resulting in hemorrhaging resources and a souring of public good will. The fate of the independent record store, a concept already being immortalized in nostalgic books and film documentaries, might have been a cautionary tale for independent bookstores -- and in many ways, for local consumers who didn't realize what they had -- until it vanished. Hopefully the customer focus and community outreach will keep these bookstores around for many years to come.