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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Built for the future: Martin House Books opens in Westerly’s old Savoy space

    Owner Gretchen Miller, a Westerly resident, at Martin House Books in downtown Westerly Tuesday, April 9, 2024. The shop, which occupies the space that was once Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, is officially opening April 27th. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Customers talk at Martin House Books in downtown Westerly Tuesday, April 9, 2024. The shop, which occupies the space that was once Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, is officially opening April 27th. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Sean Tate, of Preston, looks out a window as he eats lunch at Martin House Books in downtown Westerly Tuesday, April 9, 2024. The shop, which occupies the space that was once Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, is officially opening April 27th. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Lalene Sirypannho reads to her niece Ailina Husukic, 3, both of Westerly, in the renovated children’s room at Martin House Books in downtown Westerly Tuesday, April 9, 2024. The shop, which occupies the space that was once Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, is officially opening April 27th. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A customer in Westerly’s new Martin House Books will always be able to find a novel or two by Mississippi thriller writer Greg Iles and at least one copy of the children’s title “The Rainbow Goblins.”

    That’s because Gretchen Miller, who owns Martin House Books, is the sort who opened the place not because it’s a shrewd addition to her investment portfolio, but because she has a lifelong passion for reading, writing and readers. And if she particularly loves Iles and “The Rainbow Goblins” — and she does — it’s her proprietor’s prerogative to order as many of them as she wants.

    “Yes, I am definitely a book person,” laughed Miller last week. The 46-year-old wife and mother of two teenage sons was seated at the rear of the Martin House main floor, within plain sight if cashier Jess Wick was overrun with customers. “The magic about what we do is helping someone, whether it’s an adult or a child, find that perfect book — the book where they say, ‘Oh my gosh! I LOVED this. What’s the next one? What’s another one like it?’”

    In fact, Martin House was pretty busy, and maybe it wasn’t supposed to be — yet.

    The official grand opening isn’t until April 27, and Miller and her five-person staff had been working a calculated “soft opening” schedule. If customers noticed the doors were unlocked and happened to walk in while set-up and stocking were underway, that was fine. The place was shiny and clean and plenty of decor and a new mural were all visible. Too, some shelves were empty, display tables were in mild disarray, and boxes of books were still being unpacked and organized at Miller’s house. Chaotically functional.

    But when Mark Lapriore, who owns Westerly Camera and Darkroom directly across the street, and who was a regular at the Savoy Bookshop & Café — the business that previously occupied the spot — realized a new bookstore was coming in, he gleefully posted the news on social media.

    “All the soft opening plans were out the window,” Miller said, shaking her head and clearly OK with the subsequent changes in preparation. “It’s been crazy but wonderful. We’ve got so many more books and sidelines coming in and I just tell customers that, if something’s wrong, that’s why. We aren’t ready! There hasn’t been time. But everyone has come in so happy and enthusiastic. And I definitely let Mark know how much I appreciated his post.”

    Location, location

    Martin House is in a prime location on arts/entertainment-happy Canal Street. It’s a perfect place for committed bibliophiles, fans who were heartbroken when Savoy closed, random passersby — and even folks who perhaps don’t read much but are intrigued by the store’s charming façade.

    Inside, it’s an even more alluring space with exposed brick walls and polished wood and pleasant aromas from the in-store Café 1888, a baked goods/coffee/lunch spot operated by Brittany Fox, owner of Narragansett’s Queen of Cups coffee shop. Downstairs is an expansive children’s section with play spaces and plenty of room for author events, writing groups, book club gatherings or private events.

    For Miller, it’s the proverbial realization of a dream, or maybe it’s that “I’ve trained my whole life for this!” moment.

    Pages of destiny

    “My mother had a bookstore where I grew up in Massachusetts, and I worked here in the early days of Savoy,” Miller said. “I also assisted in the children’s section at the Westerly Library, so I’ve been happily surrounded by books.”

    When the Savoy announced late last July it was going out of business, Miller took note. And when the doors officially closed a week letter, she immediately emailed the landlord to ask about the possibility of opening her own bookstore in the space. She heard back the next day, and a plan was put in motion.

    “I’m so excited for Gretchen and for her stewardship,” said Wick, who was assistant manager at Savoy and knew Miller for their shared days at that store. “She’s committed to books and readers and the idea of the independent bookstore as part of a community. And it’s already clear she has strong support from family, friends and the people who’ve already come in the store.”

    Early guests

    The latter segment includes customer Sean Tate, an 81-year-old Preston resident who was looking at books, chatting with employees, and pondering options at Café 1888.

    “I love visiting Westerly and I have a system,” he said. “I’d come into town the back way, visit the Vesta Bakery, eat lunch at Thong (Thai Restaurant), and finally browse at the Savoy. Then one day, (the Savoy) wasn’t here. I was heartbroken. A town without a bookstore has a hole in it.”

    Tate, a former international educator whose reading tastes broadly span fiction and nonfiction, paused and grinned. “But Gretchen took the gamble and here we are!” He points out various aspects of the store like the tiny “faerie doors” built into the walls — look closely, they’re there — and commented enthusiastically on staff and the already impressive stock. “If there’s one word I’d use to describe how I felt when I found out Martin House was here, it’s JOY!”

    Another early visitor was Old Lyme’s bestselling novelist Luanne Rice.

    “I’d never met Luanne,” Miller said, with just a note of awe in her voice. “She just dropped by to introduce herself and wish us well and we appreciated that so much. I didn’t expect that. Normally, you know, if you have an author in-store, you’ve gone through a publisher and it’s a signing event.”

    Rice said, “It was wonderful to meet Gretchen, and I was so touched to hear that her mother owned a bookstore for 38 years. So, she had a literary mother and grew up surrounded by books, just as I did — mine was an English teacher. Gretchen is passionate about books and stories, and I love that she named the bookstore after the remarkable building in which it's located — a celebration of Westerly history. The counter was overflowing with flowers, people were welcoming her. There's a lot of joy and excitement about having her there.”

    Opening Day

    In that spirit, it's not a coincidence that the April 27 Martin House Books grand opening takes place on Independent Bookstore Day. Like Bank Square Books in Mystic and RJ Julia in Madison, Martin House — and its owner and staff — are committed to the idea of a local bookstore as integral to the local cultural tapestry.

    “We hope to be so much more than a bookstore,” Miller said. “People will gather here, enjoy coffee or a glass of wine and some food, and talk about and explore the wonders of literature. We want this to be a familiar meeting place.”

    Official opening festivities on the 27th start at 11 a.m. with a variety of activities, giveaways including a gift basket, and plenty of children-centric fun such as storytelling and interactive sessions. The ribbon-cutting happens at 4:30 p.m.

    Optimism abounds

    Clearly, any doomsday scenarios about publishing and the fate of the brick-and-mortar bookstore do not resonate with Miller.

    “A lot of people have asked why I would go into something like this,” Miller said. “I remember working with my mom and her store when Amazon came along — and there were the same fears then. But bookstores change along with the times, too.

    “We order every day, so I can get it the next day, too. Amazon might make recommendations based on algorithms, but we KNOW you and can make suggestions based on that personal relationship and what others you might meet here suggest. Maybe your writers group meets here, and you learn about authors or books that way.”

    As for the science of setting up a bookstore — how much to order of what — Miller followed her own instinct. “You know, there IS a guide where wholesalers ask you demographics and they tell you what you want in your store.” She smiled. “I didn’t read it. I feel like I know the community and, in working at the Savoy in the beginning, I think I first knew what I DIDN’T want to have. And then I worked on what I should have and what my customers were looking for.

    “In summertime, we are a tourist (spot). But not so much year-round like Mystic. We also serve school systems. I have to get the kids' school reading books. I have to make sure I have their lists—the list for Chariho, for Stonington. So those are specifics to what we’re doing. And it’s fun.” She laughed. “At least checking in the first 500 books or so.”

    At the front door, a flurry of customers entered: a family with three small children, a college-age couple, and a fellow who chained his bicycle on the sidewalk. Miller needed to get back to work.

    “I’m not worried about the future of books or reading,” Miller said, rising from her chair with a confident smile. “If this works out and I get to do this for 20 years, 30 years, awesome. If something drastic DOES change and for some reason it doesn’t, I will still have had the opportunity to do something I love in a community I love. I believe in bookstores.”

    If you go

    What: Grand opening for Martin House Books

    When: 11 a.m. April 27

    Where: 10 Canal St., Westerly

    How much: Free

    For more information: (401) 561-6101

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