Book Barn in Niantic celebrating 30 years
Three decades of fortunate happenstances have created a book lover’s paradise so popular it has its own Atlas Obscura page.
“Sometime this winter we were named one of 12 Bookstores in the World Worth Traveling To,” owner Randi White said. “They’re in Italy and they’re marble and stone and all this stuff, and we’re cardboard and plywood. It kind of cracks me up in some ways.”
The Book Barn, spread over four locations along Route 156 in Niantic, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. White said his business experience came from working in his family’s pizza shop in New London, but his love of books led him to work at the Booksmith, a now-shuttered store in the New London Mall.
“Once I got into the business, I just absolutely fell in love with it,” he said. “It was wonderful to be able to talk about books and deal in books and be around everything as they come out. It was spectacular.”
The Booksmith was also where he met the owner of the property that now houses the Main Barn, and two days later he rented out the basement and started his own store with “a couch and three bookcases” filled with stock from a yard sale.
The main campus took shape after a fire in the barn in 1990, when the tenant in the upstairs portion of the barn moved out after the renovations, and the first satellite location opened downtown in 2001 to bring the business closer to other stores and remedy the limited parking available at the barn. The midtown location opened a few doors down from Downtown in 2008, and Store Four has been slowly spreading its stock throughout a building next to East Coast Taco over the last five years.
“In the history of this place there’s a lot of coincidental, just-seemed-like-it-meant-to-happen type of things where things appeared at the right possible time,” White said, citing that chance meeting with the property owner as the biggest example. “Things sort of seemed to come together, not easily, but when things needed to happen, they did.”
There’s not going to be a Store Five, though; he said his wife Mo made him promise to stop at four.
Over the years, White has noticed a generational change in the books he sells, shifting more toward modern publications than the classics. He also noted the growth of the young adult genre, not only in the amount of content available but also in the quality of the content, addressing issues important to teens.
Nevertheless, he said it’s the uniqueness of the property that allowed the business to develop into the “magical” store it is, complete with gardens, two resident goats, more than a dozen cats and thousands upon thousands of books.
Chuck Howard, a Book Barn veteran who also worked with White at the Booksmith, said the store is a true reader’s book store. As a buyer, he often encounters the tourists, the regular pilgrims from other states — White said his average customer comes from 50 miles away — and the locals who have driven by for years and have never been in before.
“The great thing about this business is that I’ve been in the book business for 45 years and I still see stuff almost every day that I’ve never seen before,” he said.
Staff scheduler T Hagan, who celebrates her 18-year anniversary at the store in August, said the staff works really well together, and there’s always something new to do. She enjoys seeing customers using the store as a gathering place for birthday parties and other family events.
“It’s nice to see people enjoy the place not just as a store but as somewhere they enjoy enough to make it a special-occasion location,” she said. “Kids who come in and are very excited about books give me a lot of faith in the generation coming up.”
Longtime employee Glenn Shea, who started around the same time as Hagan, said the people who have worked at the Book Barn over the years have all added to the whimsical feeling of the store, including physical touches like hobbit houses in the gardens and Rapunzel’s tower off the main barn. He has a lot of fun labeling the shelves in the history, art and poetry sections he watches over, and lately he has been working on a new Book Barn anthem, with rhymes specific to each location’s offerings set to the tune of “Modern Major-General” from “The Pirates of Penzance.”
“I’m in the catbird seat,” Shea said.
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