Welcome to this week’s Spotlight on Bookstores! Taylor M. Polites shares a bit about the bookish treasures to be found in Providence, Rhode Island. From a well-known indie to university bookstores, private and public libraries, “America’s Renaissance City” has a wealth of interesting and unusual places to scout for books. Best of all (selfishly), it’s just over an hour from me; I plan to go on a book treasure hunt this summer, using Taylor’s essay as a map!
A few weeks ago I introduced you to the author of this post – Taylor M. Polites’s novel The Rebel Wife (from Simon & Schuster) is hitting bookstore shelves this week! This novel, set in Reconstruction Alabama, center on Augusta “Gus” Branson is a young widow whose quest for freedom turns into a race for her life. Taylor was born in Huntsville, Alabama, the basis for The Rebel Wife’s fictional town of Albion, and has been researching this novel since he was a teen. I can only imagine his delight when he uncovered the treasure he did at Cellar Stories – Providence, indeed!
I moved to Providence, Rhode Island about a year ago. For a city of its relatively modest size, it has an incredible level of culture. Part of that culture is a great appreciation for books. There is a great independent bookstore, Books on the Square. There was a Borders at the mall, but that is gone now. There are several colleges and universities that have bookstores, including the wonderful Brown University Bookstore. There are some of the oldest, most historic and beautiful libraries I have ever had the privilege of working in: my all-time favorite, the Providence Athenaeum, founded in 1753 and housed in an 1838 building, it is one of the oldest private libraries in the country and yet a warm and welcoming center of community. The Providence Public Library is in a beautiful late 19th century building that sums up all the faded glory of Providence perfectly. The beautiful marble Hay library at Brown University and also the fantastic open stacks of the Rockefeller Library have become havens for me. The Rhode Island School of Design library is housed in the old Rhode Island Hospital Trust building, whose massive marble-columned, barrel-vaulted lobby has become a spectacular reading room. And in addition to these are a few used bookstores, which brings me to my special focus.
In the heart of downtown, along a quiet side-street and up a flight of concrete stairs, is Cellar Stories Books.Yes, Cellar Stories, but on the second floor. While many bookstores have turned to selling toys and gifts, cards and paper items, or installed coffee shops, wine bars or event spaces, Cellar Stories is very simply what it is — a used bookstore. When you enter, the owner is probably sitting on the stool on your right, surrounded by stacks and stacks of books, paging through them, considering them. And before you, tall stacks of unfinished wood going virtually to the ceiling filled with books. When the shelves are filled, the books are stacked on top of the books on the shelves, or in rolling carts, or in piles on the floor or whatever free surface presents itself. You can ask the woman behind the counter about a title and she will narrow her eyes and look up to the ceiling and turn down a corner of her mouth, then take you to the two or three different sections where your book might be. But it’s not about getting what you came for at Cellar Stories, it’s about finding what you didn’t expect.
I was wandering the aisles the last time I was there when I looked down on the floor and on top of a stack of books about two feet high was A Fool’s Errand by Albion W. Tourgée. Tourgée was a Union man who fought in the Civil War, moved to North Carolina and served in the government during Reconstruction and was himself a victim of threats and violence by the Ku Klux Klan. He wrote a great (sensational) historical book called The Invisible Empire about Klan activities in the South during the 1870’s (something he had personal experience with). To find his novel based on those experiences sitting on the floor of Cellar Stories as if it was waiting for me, a book that has not been in print for many years and that I had never seen before although I had looked for it, that is what I love about this place. For a writer of Southern fiction focusing on Reconstruction, it was a little gift from the literature gods. Thank you, Cellar Stories!