Savoy new jewel in downtown Westerly crown
Westerly — Annie Philbrick is the latest recipient of Charles "Chuck" Royce's pixie dust.
Philbrick will open her new Savoy Bookshop & Café at 10 Canal St. — in the circa 1886 Martin House, formerly the Savoy Hotel — next week, thanks to support from Royce and his son-in-law, Dan King, who have shepherded at least a half dozen projects in downtown Westerly over the past several years.
"They believe in me, which I find really lucky," Philbrick said of her partnership with Royce and King.
For more than 18 months, contractors have been rebuilding and refurbishing two of the condominiums in the one-time hotel to house the bookstore.
Royce and King own the bookstore space, about 3,000 square feet, under the name 10 Canal Street LLC. But the contractors they have hired are customizing it for Philbrick's business.
"He asked me, 'If I build it, will you run it?'" Philbrick said of her first meeting with Royce in the summer of 2014. He visited her other business, Bank Square Books in downtown Mystic, on a July day to discuss the idea.
"It was pouring rain and he came into Bank Square Books, sat down and we talked," said Philbrick, who once worked as a landscape designer and, later, at the former Small Business Development Center at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut.
"He said, 'I can't imagine a town without a bookstore.' He was just very passionate about independent bookstores as a community hub. He has that vision, and this is what I do, I'm passionate about books," she said.
Royce and Philbrick struck a deal.
"She is the operator of the bookstore, we just provide the vessel in which to work," said King, executive director of the Royce Family Fund, who spoke on Royce's behalf.
Philbrick is the exact kind of person that Royce and King like to support, he said.
"She has the passion, the expertise and the drive, and she's proved it year after year by beating sales expectations. And she's bucked the trend of (faltering) independent bookstores," King continued. "She is showing the model for success with personalized care and knowledge of the product. And she reaches out into the community, with book signings and talks and events. That's the kind of operator we like to see in the downtown."
Royce, who is principal owner of the Ocean House in Watch Hill and the Weekapaug Inn, as well as numerous other interests, has supported several other downtown projects that are operating or underway.
King explained that in most situations, it ends up as a landlord/tenant relationship.
"It's an economic model that we have found success with," he said, adding that "someone with a beautiful idea" can "walk into a situation where they can get their feet underneath them. They don't have to worry. We provide rent that is not onerous over the first year, and later, we up the rent to normal market rates."
Philbrick's new business will open in a beautifully restored space with many original features, such as the hardwood floors, still intact. There is a lot of dark wood, a tin ceiling and a soapstone counter at the café.
The Canal Street entrance will house the adult section and the café, which will be operated by Erika and Tim Lebling, who run the coffee business at the nearby YMCA. The lower level will be home to the children's section, and be accessible by stairs, an elevator or the rear parking lot entrance.
Upstairs, there are oversized windows that allow light to flow into the bookstore. Glass prisms in the floor, similar to those used on the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, will allow the natural light to permeate to the lower level.
Downstairs, there are tiered shelves with bump-out "seats" or planks, for children to climb and perch on while checking out books.
There is also a "log cabin" — a reading and relaxing cubbyhole where youngsters can hang out. Inside the cabin, lights are suspended in upside-down Mason jars.
Philbrick expects the store to have a soft opening sometime after March 21 and has scheduled "a gala opening" for 5 to 7 p.m. April 16.
Philbrick, who is a member of the board of the American Booksellers Association, will operate Savoy Bookstore & Café with silent partner Patience Banister, who was one of two friends who joined her a decade ago to buy Bank Square Books.
The third partner sold her share years ago and while Banister is still a partner, Philbrick runs the businesses under the name of Mystic Book Inc.
Philbrick already has hired the children's buyer at her Mystic location, Kelsey April, to be the manager at Savoy while continuing to buy children's books for both locations.
The Savoy bookstore will employ seven, Philbrick said, and be open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except Sundays, when it will be open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Philbrick said she's always enjoyed books and added, "I read fast and I read a lot."
In 2015 she kept count, and said by year's end she had read 160 books. She prefers fiction, and while she has no one favorite, she recently read Dawn Tripp's historical fiction book "Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O'Keefe," and recommends it.
She says she's energized to be in downtown Westerly, amid all the activity underway there, and she repeatedly remarks on how fortunate she is to have connected with Royce and King.
King said the admiration is mutual, and that Philbrick exemplifies the kind of merchant that Royce believes is vital to a healthy downtown district.
"Chuck's passion for the community knows no bounds," King said. "He has a core belief in the importance of community gathering places in the downtown area. He knows what it takes to bring people downtown — the skating rink, arts and education, support of the hospital, outdoor activities — he has the ability to help and he does."
A thriving bookstore was high on his list, King said.
And so are these other projects:
Royce has committed about $2 million to the estimated $5 million cost of a satellite campus for the Community College of Rhode Island in a former rail yard near the Amtrak station in downtown Westerly. Electric Boat, the State of Rhode Island and others are partners in the project that is envisioned as a training center for those who want to go to work at the shipyard and in other trades.
Royce and King also are involved in a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort to historically preserve, renovate and reopen the United Theatre, also on Canal Street.
And they are part of the effort to recast the legendary Knickerbocker Café at 35 Railroad Ave. into the Knickerbocker Music Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to promote music through performance and education.
They also have teamed up with the owner of Trattoria Longo Meatballs and Martinis at 12 Canal St. to open a second location in the Nardone building on High Street, the space that was the original home of 84 High Street Café, which moved several years ago to a different downtown location. The new Longo's will include a pizzeria and an Italian specialty market.
Royce and King already have played a role in moving Christina Ltd., a clothing and accessory boutique, from its former Railroad Avenue location to the retail space in the Nardone building that fronts on both High and Canal streets.
"Chuck really cares about the community," King said.
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