Photography by Miranda McDermott
I have a love-hate relationship with bookstores, especially independent bookstores. I love them, but they hate my wallet. However, with Amazon sinking it’s brick-and-mortar teeth into Dedham, Massachusetts, I knew it was my bibliophilic duty to spread the word about some of Providence’s best independent bookstores (Sorry Brown University Bookstore, you aren’t worth my time). I devised a plan to visit five bookstores over the course of three days. I would take notes, documenting their character and expertise, but I would not purchase any books. I have the habit of walking into a bookstore just to look around and leaving $30 behind when I go on my way, taking nothing but ink and paper to offset my costs. Since that is what’s prone to happen when I visit one bookstore, I was brutally aware of the risk I incurred by visiting five. To safeguard myself from financial destruction, my commitment to not purchase anything needed to be ironclad. With determination coursing through my veins and a pen and paper in my pocket, I set out on my investigation.
Located on a stretch of Westminster Street full of restaurants and shops, Symposium Books is my first stop. Equal parts new and used books, the store balances a fairly open design with an impressive selection. To the left of the entrance is a small nook full of vinyl records. Unique amongst the stores that I visit, Symposium boasts a remarkable collection of art, architecture, and design books featured prominently in the front of the store. Books on Banksy, Escher, and tattoos all fight for my attention. I flip through the winning combatant, Banksy, and see photographs and analysis of all the transgressive mischief that they’ve wreaked on England. As I flip the book over to see the price tag, I’m reminded of my commitment, take a deep breath, and set the text back down on the shelf. Scattered throughout the store are plenty of stepladders to retrieve literary gems and chairs to preview them before purchase. Other notable features of the store include a new arrivals table and a vintage table, the latter of which boasts the work of Tolstoy, Faulkner, T.S. Elliott, and Dostoyevsky to name a few. While Providence’s temperamental weather did not allow it when I visited, containers and tables of discount books are typically displayed on the street. Those discount books are now located right next to the door, my final trial. With a herculean effort, I am able to step back out onto the street without a new book in hand. I head deeper into the heart of Providence and towards my next location, Cellar Stories Bookstore.
After a short, two-minute walk I arrive at the doorstep of Cellar Stories. Cellar Stories easily holds the title of Providence’s quintessential bookstore. I go through the humbly marked door, walk up a set of creaking wooden stairs, and find myself in a maze of bookshelves. As soon as I step into the room I can smell yellowed pages, cracked spines, and aged leather. Dozens of bookshelves reach almost to the ceiling, so within a few seconds I have already lost sight of the entrance. However, this is a maze I’m in no rush to get out of. I slowly work my way through the various shelves, noticing that their collection of used books leaves no topic uncovered. In the back corner of the store, I notice a section I have never seen at any other bookstore “Anarchist.” Upon closer inspection, I notice one of the strangest books I’ve ever seen. The spine of the book is entirely blank, not a single word or image is on it. As I pull the book from the shelf, I see that both the front and back cover are blank as well. I open the book up and the story immediately starts, no mention of a title, author, or publisher. The only clue is information stamped onto the final page: website and contact information for “dedrabbit.” Even though I had pledged not to purchase anything, this book needs to be the exception. I tuck it under my arm and continue perusing the store. The final part of the store that catches my attention is their rare book room. The room contains leather bound, first edition, collectors’ edition, and antique texts. An Easton Press leather bound edition of Lolita catches my eye with its spine and cover beautifully gilded with gold leaf. However, since I have already broken my rule by deciding to buy the mysterious book (that I later learned is known as Manifesto by Anonymous), I leave the rare book room, make my purchase, and leave.
My second day of investigation brought me to Wayland Square, first Books on the Square and then Paper Nautilus. As I approach Books on the Square I notice a large display of feminist texts (think Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist) to celebrate women’s history month. Unique among my investigation is that they primarily sell new books, with only a small bookshelf devoted to discount used books. Books are highlighted effectively in several areas, made especially pronounced by the open concept design. One table near the front of the store includes new and notable releases and staff picks. On the wall facing the door is a collection of the fifteen bestselling fiction and non-fiction books according to independent booksellers. One that catches my eye is Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. Unbeknownst to me, my previous day’s purchase opened the financial floodgates. I look around the rest of the store, noticing their collection of journals, cards, litographic posters, and a nice section devoted to local authors. However, I keep feeling the pull of Milk and Honey, and before I know it I’m walking out the door with the book and receipt in hand.
I walk one street up to the door of Paper Nautilus, never expecting the horror I’m met with. A sign is posted on the door “Losing lease, forced to move out.” Through my impeccable eavesdropping, I learn that the lease is expiring at the end of April and that they are still trying to find a new location. In the meantime, all books are 25% off. The store has a great selection of countless categories (they even have a transportation section divided up according to specific means of transportation), but I head straight to the philosophy section. Their philosophy section is nothing short of incredible, but not because of the number of books. What I love about their collection of philosophy is the obscurity of the titles; they have authors and topics that I have looked for, but haven’t been able to find anywhere else. Since the books are on sale, the store is losing their lease, and I have already broken my rule twice, I figure I might as well buy a few books. I end up deciding on The Spirit of Terrorism by Jean Baudrillard (I have four of his other books but have never seen this one before) and The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy by Donna V. Jones. I leave the store confident of my purchases and desperately hoping they are able to find a new location soon.
The final destination of my journey is the only store I have never visited before, Ada Books. As I walk up to the door, I notice a “Black Lives Matter” sign featured prominently in the window and a selection of feminist and women’s history texts. A number of the books featured in the window focus specifically on or are written by black women, demonstrating that the sign reflects a genuine commitment. As I hear the man working there explain to a customer why Roxane Gay’s recent book Dangerous Women was delayed, it becomes increasingly clear that this is a store with a conscience. A stand in front of the door features new and obscure works of poetry and prose. I pick up Sonata in K by Karen An-Hwei Lee, published February 2017, because the title reminded me of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata. After reading the description, I couldn’t put it down no matter how much I wanted to. The store has a very eclectic feel, selling a least a dozen different periodic reviews, magazines, and journals. I recognized some of the titles, Hi-Fructose, Jacobin, N+1, and Harvard Review; but most of them I’d never seen before. They also had cards, prints from local artists, and comics that were printed in house by Ada Books. Bookshelves surround the back room of the store, including a discount section that is $3 each or 4 for $10. Adding to the eclectic feel of the store is large collection of zines (small-release, self-published works that can consist of art, poetry, or prose). As I walk around the store one last time I see a book I’ve been looking for at each stop on my journey, My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris. I grit my teeth, pick it up without even bothering to check the price, and purchase my two books. I head to the coffee shop next store, White Electric Coffee, and try to decide which of my six new books to enjoy with a latte.
Independent bookstores appeal to me precisely because they tempt me with something I’m not able to refuse. The thrill of picking up a book I’ve never heard of before, reading a brief description, and desperately wanting to know more is something that only a real bookstore can offer. While I might wish I didn’t spend so much money on books, it certainly isn’t money wasted. With rising cost of rent and the dominance of online shopping, my purchases safeguard my ability to go on literary treasure hunts. So this is my call to action for Providence’s bibliophiles, please support the bookstores I listed and any others you know about before it’s too late.
Symposium Books (240 Westminster Street)
Cellar Stories Bookstore (111 Mathewson Street)
Books on the Square (471 Angell Street)
Paper Nautilus (5 South Angell Street)
Ada Books (717 Westminster Street)