While searching for a subject for Part 5 of Project Booklust, I thought I’d expand from the rare and antique bookselling market and look at independent booksellers at large. So I went big. The Book Barn in Niantic, Conn., is a sprawling megaplex of used books. The store fills a barn and several outbuildings at their main location, and there are locations in Downtown and Midtown Niantic, as well as a recent addition—Store Four. Distributed among the four stores are more than 500,000 titles that cover just about every possible genre—in detail.
As a used book powerhouse, the scale of The Book Barn could easily be a corporate endeavor. But it’s not. Owner Randi White and his wife left the pizza business some twenty-five years ago to sell books in the basement of what is now the main barn. They had three bookshelves and a couch. Now books arrive in a steady stream (or maybe a raging flood). They’ve been delivered thrice by dump truck over the years. Since its humble start, The Book Barn has been featured in several magazines—including Connecticut and Yankee—and local newspapers.
“It’s not about the money,” Randi says. “It’s about the love of books.”
And he’s dedicated to amassing those books, often working seven days a week and close to everyday in a year in the process.
I wasn’t sure how I would approach The Book Barn for the sake of Project Booklust, given its position on the other end of the scale spectrum. The nature of its business made the decision for me and I got caught up in its routines. I joined Randi and Book Barn Staffer Sharon Harte on a Monday morning and hung out while they bought books. I was hooked.
On most days, they do their receiving at a circular kiosk of tables shaded by umbrellas on the edge of the parking lot. Randi called it a slow Monday even as the books arrived by wagon trains, shuttled from cars, vans, pickups, etc. Randi and Sharon rifled through paper bags and boxes. They plucked books from the bulk and sorted everything into piles: sales and rejects. They know their stock by rote. They also know consumer trends and tastes. So when the wagons rolled up to the receiving area, they unloaded, sorted, smelled (that’s right), and reloaded two or three of them in about five minutes tops.
The process is nearly mechanical. At transaction’s end, they and other staff sort according to category and destination (which shop and shelf). The noise of books thumping and boxes opening and closing at a measured pace sounds like an assembly line.
I stood there for an hour watching. I chatted with Randi, Sharon, and visiting book dealers about books and reading interests. We also talked about the rollercoaster market trends in the early digital revolution—a ubiquitous influence on every bookseller whether they are corporate, independent, hyper-specialized rare booksellers, or commanders of variety like Randi.
Randi’s not worried about the digital disruption anymore, though, having recently come to terms with the importance of e-books given today’s busy lifestyle.
“I don’t think it has to be one or the other,” Randi says, referring to the paper versus pixel debate.
He sees how e-readers are helpful in situations such as flying. Or, say, that of an MFA student (eh hem) who reads more than twenty books a semester, and doesn’t want to fill limited home space with titles less dear but still necessary.
Eventually I lost track of my own purpose—at times becoming more shopper than observer. How could I resist the temptation there on the front lines of incoming books? I found it hard to stay focused on my notes, overwhelmed by not only the volume of books crossing the tables, but the range of genres and subjects. Literature. How-to crafts. Martial arts and assorted fitness. Piles of nonfiction covering the Civil War and World War Two.
About half the books I saw fell into one of three categories: subjects I’m researching now, subjects I want to research, and books I’ve always wanted to read. I’d resisted the urge to pickup a copy of Tolstoy’s aesthetic statement at John Bale. I fought the urge to buy the first edition of The Waste Land at Johnnycake Books. I was too much the novice to find the deliberately underpriced titles salted in John Kehoe’s shelves, and too broke at the Boston Book Fair. But the flood of incoming books at The Book Barn eroded my will power. I had to buy something.
I began my own stack based on my current research in American military history and stories. I cut myself off at four: A History of Warfare, Atlas of World War II, First Sergeant: An Introduction, and Hemingway’s posthumous True at First Light (I’m an aspiring but unofficial Hemingway scholar).
With the onset of a selling lull and my own hunger (I’d skipped lunch), I left my post at the receiving table to explore the campus of outbuildings comprising the main store. All of them are eclectic in both architecture and content. There are a few modified sheds. Some tarp-shelters. Covered shelves with an aesthetic reminiscent of Little Free Libraries, except on a bigger scale. A real old-fashioned outhouse. Even a haunted house for all the horror and mystery titles.
The Book Barn’s main store is also something of a park or carnival with its playground equipment, fleet of Cozy Coupes, resident cats, goats, and gardens. Yes, I could’ve stayed all day basking (or shivering since it was 36 degrees) in literary overload and making noises at the goat to get it to look at my camera. But, alas, I had to feed my stomach as well as my mind.
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