A Garden Of Books

May 8, 2020

I don’t say this lightly – The Book Barn might top my list of all-time favorite establishments.

For one thing, I love books. Just about every available wall of my house is taken up by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. And most of those books probably came from The Book Barn.

I went to visit the store last year to talk to owner Randi White. And I shared his story on WSHU. He told me he started his establishment in the basement of his barn in 1988 with a couch and three bookcases.

“It was a cement floor,” he says. “It was four lightbulbs sticking down from a plywood ceiling. We took a rug out of the dumpster that some mall store threw away, and that was our first rug.”

It’s not just a basement anymore. This place is a whole experience. It’s like a garden full of books. Cobblestone paths lead past small decorative ponds to sheds and cottages with dusty bookshelves full of mystery, romance, poetry. There are cats everywhere and even a few goats.

Glenn Shea was working behind the counter. He’s also a published poet, so he’s got a way with words when he describes how summer looks at The Book Barn.

“The place is in bloom. The flowers are up, the trees are green and everything like that. I’ve been walking across the back area, and at all the tables there’ll be someone sitting with a book or talking about a book or looking for a book. And you just get that sort of euphoric feeling, is, wow, the place works. This is what we intended and it actually has happened.”

A second Book Barn opened in 2001, just down the road in Niantic. Another store opened later, also close by. So you could easily make a day hopping back and forth among them. White says The Book Barn survived tough times – like the 2008 recession.

“We knew early on that we had to get big and we had to get a reason for people to come out of New York City,” he says. “No small bookstore will survive on its own. We either had to be around other bookstores or become large enough to be a destination.”

I’ve planned entire vacations around bookstore visits. But The Book Barn is only about an hour from my house. And I make a pilgrimage out there about once a month. Hence all those books on my shelves.

So it’s really sad to even think that The Book Barn is closed because of the pandemic.

I called up employee Glenn Shea to find out how things are going during the pandemic. He’s been to the store once or twice since it closed.

“We’ve had probably as many e-mails about, how are the cats doing?” Shea says. “I went in one day to grab some stuff off the computer and the whole lobby of the main barn was piled up with cans of cat food and water and stuff like that. Randi goes out several times a day to feed the cats [and] goats.”

A lot of bookstores are now selling online during the closures. The Book Barn isn’t. It would be hard to get all those cluttered stacks of books organized enough to ship them out. But Shea says they’re posting a lot more on social media.

“Since we’ve closed down, it’s just sort of been keeping up with the community that is the group of people who shop at The Book Barn. There’s so many people who become regulars, there’s really people who become friends. It’s just sort of a little flag of greeting to people to say we’re okay, we’ll be back when we can, that kind of thing.”

I was relieved to hear Glenn’s not that worried about the future of The Book Barn. 

“Obviously if it stretches on past a certain point – what’s that line in the Philadelphia Story? Belts are gonna be worn tighter this winter? But right at the moment, there was enough money in the till to keep this place intact, and so we’ve already started talking about how The Barn’s gonna deal when we reopen.”

That means social distancing among shoppers and a little more care with boxes of used books brought in by customers to sell. Glenn says some customers are anxious to get back.

“There have been several emails that have had the distinct sound of Barn separation fears. Things are looking good. We’ll be back up whenever we can.”

Update: The Book Barn plans to reopen on May 20th.