“Is the bobblehead queen in the window for sale?” An older woman asks the young blue-shirted bookseller roaming the floor of the store. “Book Barn” is printed across the front of her shirt in bold white letters. Underneath is an image of a sofa and bookshelves, with the phrase, “It all started with a couch and three bookcases.”
“No, those were gifts,” the employee explains. She returns to her post, joining a coworker behind the crowded counter. Stacks of used graphic novels surround them, spines of various colors and patterns packed tightly together. The booksellers discuss which music should be played over the loudspeaker next. Currently, it’s the “Legend of Zelda” soundtrack.
Book Barn Downtown, located in Niantic, Connecticut, sits on the shoreline across from the Niantic Bay. The brick building shares a storefront with the Olde Red Saltbox antique store, and I’d Wax That Skin Studio. The sign on the front of the store boasts that it’s been around since 1988. Visitors park and enter through the back, into a narrow hallway full of books about religion and faith. From there, the hallway opens to a more spacious room of chapter books that any bookish tween would’ve begged their parents to buy from the Scholastic Book Fair a decade ago. The Homework Machine, featuring Sam “Snikwad” Dawkins, The Kind of Friends We Used to Be, the stark yellow cover featuring a pair of teenage girls’ legs lying in the grass, or Graceful, the fifth book in the Willow Falls series. A few rooms away in the horror section lies a random sex joke book, with an entire chapter dedicated specifically to dirty blondes.
“Just the damndest stuff comes through this place, and people come and find it.”
“Every day, something goes through and you look at it, it’s like, ‘Where the hell did that come from? I’ve never seen it.’ Works by authors that you’ve never heard of; topics that you’d never dream of,” says Glenn Shea, Book Barn employee and book-selling veteran. “Just the damndest stuff comes through this place, and people come and find it.”
Book Barn owner, Randi White, gained his business acumen working at his family’s New London pizza restaurant. He began working at Booksmith in the New London Mall, where he found his passion for books and bookselling. In 1983, he rented out the basement of what is now the Main Barn, and true to the slogan on the Book Barn staff t-shirt, it started with a couch and three bookcases.
“I think Randi’s last gauge was that we were upward of 350,000 books,” Shea says. “And quite aside from the fact that they’re cheap, which is always nice. You know, this is one of the places where you can go and actually handle a book before you look at it.”
Chapter Three, another building approximately one mile down the road, is a lot less crowded. Any seasoned Chapter Three patron knows to bypass the first floor entirely to visit the cats who lounge on the second floor couch. On this day, all three cats happen to be lounging on the elegant, red, scratched-to-all-hell couch. Cutiepie lies with her daughters, Rosemary and Thyme. The trio used to be feral, until they were brought to their novel-filled home.
The cats on the upper level are surrounded by style guides, plays, and business books. Retreating downstairs readers find romances, true crime, and miscellaneous hobby books.
A mere six-hundred feet away from Chapter Three, the gravel parking lot of the main Book Barn forces visitors to drive slowly. More blue-shirted staff members populate the entrance, buying used books and accepting donations from patrons. Past them is the paved walkway, with bookshelves and small buildings full of books at every turn. Some areas boast new arrivals, or “dolla’ dolla’ books, ya’ll.” To the left, on elevated terrain is the main barn.
“Certainly, what makes [The Book Barn], if not unique then really unusual, is the fact that we have so much space,” Shea says. “We have all these shelves. Anyone who runs a used bookshop will tell you that the worse the limitations of your space, the harder it is to make it go. You can only carry in so much stock.”
Although not taking up too much area on West Main Street, the Book Barn offers so many structures and shelves to examine that it would be near impossible for patrons to view all of the books in one trip.
The Book Barn also serves as an unofficial barnyard. Several cats wander the premises during the day, one of them being a white and orange kitty named Pipkin. He stops to scratch himself in front of The Last Page, a small, converted shed-looking building, which contains nature and animal books, before continuing his midday stroll around the barn.
In the nearby goat pen, Fili and Teddy are introduced to visiting dogs by their bookish humans.
“See the big dogs?” an older man asks his leashed brown puppy, pointing to the goats. Another man stops to ask what breed the puppy is.
“German shepherd dachshund. What a riot!” the man laughs. The German shepherd dachshund barks in response.
Back at the goat pen, another dog is introduced to the goats. The mother and child, thrilled by their black dog’s interest, shout, “Isabelle! Isabelle, come here!”
Toward the back of the property is a barn titled, “The Annex,” which mostly holds a selection of general fiction. The floor is layered with weathered rugs, and multiple shelves that tower over visitor’s heads. A boy with fluffy hair and a black jacket scans the shelves with a wavy-haired girl wearing glasses and a muted pink long-sleeve shirt. The boy tells her the book they’re looking at isn’t particularly worth the read, since he attempted to read it and only got 150 pages in. They move onto another book that the boy can’t decipher.
“You literally cannot read cursive.”
“No.” The girl’s attention falls back to the shelf. “Ohh, that’s a good book.”
There’s a clanging noise, followed by a soft, “ow” from the boy. The girl stifles her laughter.
The young readers eventually find themselves in the “P” section.
“Literally, all my mom reads is Jodi Picoult,” the boy says.
“My dad can’t read.” The girl responds plainly, still scanning the shelves.
The weathering wood siding and red trim of the main barn is visible from the open doors. Children’s novels are stocked at the front entrance drawing patrons to the main counter. The basement and main floor mainly contain historical books, and the second floor offers advice books and young adult novels. One girl who looks to be about fifteen years old, scans the young adult section carefully. She has long, straight brown hair and white combat boots. The child from the goat pen runs up the stairs.
“Isabelle! The dog was going crazy over the goats!”
The straight-haired girl asks, “Why were you screaming my name?” with her eyes still on the stacks. The younger sibling doesn’t answer, and instead tells her to come watch their dog throw a fit over the goats.
“No. I’m looking at books,” she responds, scanning the walled shelves.
Additional Reporting by: Christopher Caceres
Featured Image: Julia Conant