Niantic business marks 25 years selling books, making friends
East Lyme - Does the Library of Congress have a petting zoo and free cookies, coffee and doughnuts?
Does Alice in her Wonderland or Walt and his All Things Disney offer bargain prices on used books?
They leave it to the Book Barn in Niantic - a phantasmagoric and e'er-morphing enterprise that combines theme-park wonder, an expert staff and over half a million used books on every imaginable subject. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary with a year-long series of special events, raffles, tours and surprises, the Book Barn has become the sort of destination regular customers associate with a quick vacation.
Randi White, who co-owns and co-founded the Book Barn in 1988 with his wife, Mo, is quick to admit they never envisioned such things when they were starting out.
"I'd worked in a bookstore and we knew there was no money in it," he said. "But we really liked selling books, so we thought, well, we'll open our own store and do it a few years and then get real jobs." He paused and laughed. "If you'd told me we'd be able to buy this property and it would work out this way, we'd have said you're crazy."
In addition to the Whites, there are nine full-time veterans, most of whom have been with the company for years. There are also several long-tenured employees who work part-time schedules, as well as new or returning hires who sign on as needed to seasonal duty rosters.
The first thing a visitor sees at the Book Barn is Ellis Island - the welcoming/buying area where staffers evaluate any books a customer might want to sell.
While that's going on, guests may wander through landscaped gardens, cross a replication of the Beatles' iconic Abbey Road street-crossing, dunk a basketball on a regulation-height backboard, play chess on a giant outdoor board, or watch their kids climb up Rapunzel's tower. A new construction effort, taking place on a spot formerly occupied by a large tree lost in last year's Superstorm Sandy, ultimately will be a Hobbit Cave.
As for the actual book repositories, they're spread throughout the grounds. Besides the three-story Main Barn are a number of literarily motif'd adjunct structures such as the Annex, the Haunted Bookshop, the Last Page and Hades - just to name a few.
In addition to the main "Barn" campus, there are two satellite properties: Book Barn Downtown and Book Barn Midtown, both in Niantic.
All of these locations and "side attractions" have evolved organically over time with no grand design; the concepts, White said, come from anywhere and everywhere and, somehow, in Field of Dreams-style, "build it and they will come" fashion, they materialize.
More importantly, it all enhances the experience of book-hunting - rather than distracting from the process - because, ultimately, the Voracious Reader's goal is to dig into the shelves and stacks in the delighted pursuit of Books Not Yet Read.
And who knows? Maybe he or she emerges, a few hours later, with a rare Hardy Boys volume, a Russian language guide to saltwater fishing, or an autographed first edition of Yasunari Kawabata's "Snow Country."
"I've been going to the Book Barn basically since it opened," said Marilyn Massaro, a curator at Roger Williams Park's Museum of Natural History in Providence, who makes the trip to the Barn several times a year from her home in Rhode Island. "The place is the perfect weekend mecca for me - a paradisal experience. You stroll among the plants and fountains and maybe pet the cats and just enjoy looking at the stock because it's always changing."
The quality of the revolving stock is pretty incredible. Not only do White and select staffers travel to assess private estate and library collections, the day-to-day parade of customers bringing in books to sell is substantial - and guarantees a fresh and varied catalog.
"One of the perhaps unexpected benefits of the Book Barn reputation is that people want to sell to us," said Glenn Shea, a 13-year Barn veteran who frequently handles the company's public relations and media efforts. "We certainly try to offer reasonable prices, but it's more than that. It's the idea that they're contributing to the overall ebb and flow. And beyond just the popular best sellers, we get an incredible arcana - stuff you maybe wouldn't find anywhere else. And that in turn attracts more people."
Massaro, for example, has scored all sorts of to-die-for treasures over the years - including a complete set of Thoreau's journals and the complete writings of William Burroughs.
"I'd never seen the Thoreau collection before," she said. "There are at least 25 volumes. Both were major finds for me. I'm sure all the regular customers, no matter what their reading preferences are, have similar stories."
"We're happy when people find something that's rare or special to them," White said. "I like to say that we're accumulators, not collectors. We're here to serve the collectors."
'The magic of this place'
Appropriately, the specific areas of expertise by the Book Barn staff is astonishingly varied.
"That's part of the magic of this place," Shea said. "No matter what you're interested in, we've got at least some books on it - and we have someone on staff who probably knows a lot about it."
By way of illustration, Shea described two different acquisitions from earlier in the day.
One was a massive private collection consisting entirely of books about John F. Kennedy - "Kennedy books ALWAYS sell," he laughed.
The other was a three-volume set of Van Gogh's letters. "This is just a really special set," said Shea, who is also an internationally renowned poet. "In my opinion, these are the greatest and most beautiful letters ever written."
Shea's eloquence and enthusiasm for his job is shared across-the-board by Barn employees - a group Randi and Mo White consider family.
"A great part of our success is the quality of the employees," White said. "We're very proud of our staff, and we're lucky to have people who really want to be here. I mean, I live where I work, and I work with people I care about very much."
White paused, looking for words. "I think we've developed a reputation where we get a lot of people who would love to work here. You should see the job applications we get: Ph.D.s and professionals. We say, 'You, ah, know this is a bookstore, right?'"
Because of the Barn's well-earned popularity, many of the regular customers become as familiar on-site as the staff. And, not surprisingly, the interaction among all these book lovers creates an atmosphere of camaraderie.
New London resident Ken Veillette has been an almost daily visitor to the Book Barn for nearly 15 years. Though he's retired now, Veillette said he started dropping by regularly when he was employed at a stressful job.
"The Book Barn became my release. I could lose myself in books," Veillette said. "Over time, I got to know the staff, and they're all just wonderful people. I still tease Randi that the Barn's a lot like Floyd's Barber Shop in Mayberry. Everyone shows up and everyone's comfortable. Over time, you end up making friends with other book lovers, as well, and in turn you end up learning about titles and authors through osmosis."
The description absolutely resonates with White.
"That's part of what we wanted to build here," he said. "Customers quickly learn we have ongoing conversations and you jump into it and take part. It's natural around here: There's always some sort of exchange of ideas, and you get all points of view.
"Sometimes, maybe someone questions something you've long believed in and you find yourself re-examining your own thoughts. Maybe you'll go find a book on the subject. Now, isn't that what you'd want from a bookstore?"
If you go
What: The Book Barn's 25th Anniversary
When: Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Various anniversary activities are taking place through April 2014.
Where: 41 W. Main St., Niantic; Book Barn Downtown, 269 Main St., Niantic; Book Barn Midtown, 291 Main St., Niantic
More info: (860) 739-5715, www.bookbarnniantic.com
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