A New Chapter

Independent bookstores in a post-Borders Providence


In mid-September, 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 nationwide were left jobless and many communities lost the only bricks-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 and misguided expansion of physical music in the age of the digital cloud, paired with the 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 pithy 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, 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-store competitors, and a paralyzed economy.

Luckier still, these stores each have their own unique look and feel, with a depth of collections unmatched by any chain store. Adding a high level of community involvement the public desperately craves, these stores complement the passionate local movement that continues to grow.

As the largest independent seller of used books, Cellar Stories has become a downtown 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.

With over 70,000 volumes available, one enters Cellar Stories needing a couple of minutes to gain bearings and map out a mental game plan. 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.

Chandley is optimistic that Cellar Stories might see an increase in sales in post-Borders Providence, but he adds the familiar sentiment of regrets found online. “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.”

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