It All Started with Three Bookcases and a Couch.
The Eclectic and Constantly Expanding BOOK BARN
By Sharma Piersall Howard / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano
Wandering intoThe Book Barn’s main store on Route 156 in Niantic is more than a bibliophile’s Nirvana: it’s enchantment akin to wandering into a book itself – an adventure with an unknown ending. A sprawling complex of themed buildings with no obvious plan, rhyme, or reason, it appears that whatever has been put there, stays there…and somehow it all works.
Humorous signs compete for attention, fairies and gnomes stake their patch of soil in winding gardens, piles of books beckon, and a quixotic quest for the find begins before you even know what you want. Resident cats prowl the vast outdoor expanse, sniffing at visitors, napping in the sun, holding court among the stacks. That is the charm of this place. And with most books priced under four dollars, you can afford to wander, hunt, relax, and enjoy, much like the cats themselves.
“It’s just so weird, it’s really distinctive and fun,” said Miriam Posner, who was browsing with her husband, Andy Wallace as they watched their young daughter dash around.The couple, now from California, used to live in the area and knew this place well.
That’s another facet of of the Book Barn, they cater to families. Little Radio Flyers sit on the side lines, waiting for a whirl, as do tricycles. Diminutive basketball hoops and a play kitchen encourage, not discourage, active children. A whimsical playscape sets sail young seafaring dreams with a pirate theme and dragon mural, while the nearby book shack, “The Peanut Butter and Jelly-Fish Shanty,” is filled with a myriad of books appealing to young readers, looking for their own adventures..
While there is a main building on the campus, thematic sections of books are housed outdoors in small huts, where signs along the pathways and entrances give one a clue. If you didn’t know you hit the jackpot of outdoorsy and sports-related books, a sign, “Redneck Reading Room” complete with a faux outhouse, gives one a chuckle.
If the Book Barn seems a bit free-spirited, letting the experience be open-ended for customers, that is because the husband and wife team, Randi and Maureen White, have embarked on their business with a similar philosophy.“It’s growing organically and will choose its own direction,” said Randi White, of the Book Barn, which now, with four locations all in Niantic and within one mile of each other, houses more than 500,000 books. “The fourth store started when we needed a place to put 200 boxes of books. We never had a long-term plan…you have to follow what is happening in business, so we have had to adapt to what’s going on. This business makes no sense. It shouldn’t work. I mean, if you’re after money, this isn’t the business to be in.”
But money wasn’t why White, a former pizza restaurant owner, went into business. He simply fell in love with books after working part-time at the former New London Mall’s bookstore. In 1988 the Whites opened the Book Barn as a rental space and became owners of the property in 1995.
Finding the rare and unusual, like a 1924 copy of the Velveteen Rabbit – a first edition with a dust jacket-are highlights of the White’s business; although such discoveries, which netted them $8,000 to a New York book dealer, are rare. On average, the Whites buy about 10,000 books a week and purchase house lots, going out four or five nights a week in the summer. They also take in books on location.
“You never know what you’ll find,” White said, not as concerned with uncovering treasure troves as much as establishing his business as a destination, discouraging the concept that they are an antiquarian book seller. Dealers used to account for 35 percent of his business, but now comprise less than three percent. “Right now the business is more about readers than collectors.”
Instead, it’s the atmosphere of chatting with someone over a cup of coffee about an author(a pot and mugs are on the counter in the main building), that fires up White.
“It’s neat to meet people who will jump into conversations, I love it when they grab a cup of coffee and wander,” he said, estimating the average time customers spend at the Book Barn is about 35 to 40 minutes.
“People come down on the weekends from as far away as New York and New Jersey. We have a wide selection, and people want to browse. The real joy for us is people saying, ‘I didn’t know this book existed.’”
Sitting down on a long bench, relaxing on a sunny May day, were two buddies immersed in a section they often frequent – fly fishing. Endurance is critical to their sport – not only out on the water, but also it seems when browsing for books about their hobby. Merrill Katz of Groton has been collecting fly fishing books for 50 years, while his friend, John Merola of Chester has been acquiring books on the sport for 40. “They get a good revolving selection of books at reasonable prices,” said Merola, who added he brings his small children to the Book Barn for the park-like atmosphere.
Some people, however, return for the chance to pour over the inventory as a sort of hobby in and of itself. “I like how you have to explore everything to find what you’re looking for,” said Ron Carver of Meriden. “It’s well-organized, but you have to do a decent amount of exploration.”
The whimsical nature of The Book Barn made it a natural for three Harry Potter book unveils – events that White recalls as pivotal in his business for their magical nature.“It wasn’t about selling books,” said White, recalling the logistical elements they pulled together to make the experience scream Potter: llamas, owls, a Diagon Alley, and even a horse and carriage and double decker bus.
That could be, though, the key to the White’s success – it has never been about selling the books as much as enjoying the experience. And a bit of irreverent humor that imaginative minds can appreciate, as well as a creative jumble, continue to intrigue visitors.
“The Underworld,” reads one of the Book Barn’s many signs.
“Hot in the summer
cold in the winter
When it rains the river Styx
runs through it
and the paperbacks are not
in alphabetical order
Welcome to Hades.”
Visit the Book Barn’s main location at 41 West Main Street, Niantic (860) 739-5715
Other locations are found nearby in Midtown, Downtown, and at Store Four…just ask for directions www.thebookbarnniantic.com