For this amazing interview, Tom Roberge, from Riffraff Bookstore, talks about Providence’s readers, its community, experiences and some challenges bookstores may face nowadays.
1. How does the community of Providence respond to literature and bookstores? Providence has a great literary community. Brown University’s MFA programs have a great reputation — Forrest Gander and C. D. Wright taught there, and Cole Swensen still does — and a lot of the graduates end up sticking around because they like it here. And beyond that, there’s a great tradition of poetry readings, like the ones run by AS220, an arts organization. So overall, it’s a great community of readers, writers, and translators, and they definitely value good bookstores and literary events.
2. How do you think the place where you are located affects the readers’ vision of literature?
This is an interesting question, and one that we had in mind as we first started filling the shelves. Before moving to Providence to open Riffraff, I’d lived in New York for almost sixteen years, working in the publishing industry for many of them, and so it seemed to me, while I was there, that everyone I knew, even people who didn’t work in the industry, were very aware of the hot new thing. But here, away from all of that, our customers, for the most part, aren’t aware of the buzz, and so we their vision of it is largely shaped by what we (and the other stores) decide to promote and by good old fashioned word of mouth.
3. What is something special about Providence readers?
Also an interesting question. I think the best thing about our customers, in as much as they represent Providence readers, is that they’re really willing to try new authors, stuff in translation, and just downright weird things. Stuff from small, obscure presses on offbeat subjects.
4. What kind of audience usually goes to the bookstore? Do you have any strategy to attract people?
Our audience tends to be a bit younger than normal, and is generally drawn from the non-corporate world. A lot of our regulars work in creative fields, or teach, or are makers of some kind (welders, artists, artisans). I think it comes down to a shared sensibility more than anything else — we understand their interests and they understand ours, since there’s so much overlap. Our chief strategy in terms of attracting people are the books themselves, a highly curated (we have only 6000 books in the store at any given time) selection that we change up often, encouraging people to come back to see what’s new. We also, of course, have a bar that stays open until midnight, which is another draw, and which allows people to browse carefully and thoughtfully, with drinks in their hands.
5. What can you learn from the reader audience?
We’re always learning from our customers, not just in terms of tastes, but in terms of reactions to marketing and presentation. As I mentioned earlier, most of our customers are unaware of the buzz surrounding some of the “hot” books the publishing industry has decided to promote to death, and so when we decide to carry those books, there’s no guarantee that any of our customers will have heard about the books before seeing it in our store. And they often don’t react to them, especially if they’re expensive hardcovers from debut writers. They just aren’t easily swayed by the marketing machine. I appreciate that. But it means we have to scale back expectations on those sort of books.
6. Which are your audience’s favorite books? What can you recommend to readers right now?
Our bestselling books of the last year were: The Collected Schizophrenias, by Esmé Weijun Wang; Pleasure Activism, by Adrienne Maree Brown; and I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do), by Tatiana Ryckman. In terms of current recommendations, I’ve been a big fan of Sharks, Death, Surfers by Melissa McCarthy, and Emma has been hand-selling Die, My Love by Ariana Harwizc.
7. What is the greatest challenge for a bookstore nowadays? How do you see its future?
The biggest challenge will always be just making financial ends meet in the face of skyrocketing rent (and associated operating costs). The profit margins on books are not great, but there are certain advantages to selling something that doesn’t rot and doesn’t go out of fashion, so it’s just a matter of managing it all very carefully. As a friend likes to say, literature is not publishing. And what she means by that is that while literature is an important, enduring form of art, there’s another side to it, the business side, which requires certain skills that go far beyond picking out what books to sell. I think there was room for trial and error in the bookselling world many years ago, but that has vanished, and we all need to be paying attention to every dollar in and out. But, I don’t think bookstores will ever disappear. There’s something special and unique about stepping into a bookstore and browsing the shelves, maybe talking to a bookseller about one or another book, and being able to physically hold a book in its finished form, the author’s vision in your hands.
8. What is special about Riffraff bookstore?
This is easy: we sell only what we want. Because of our bar, because those profit margins are better and help buoy the bookstore side of things, we can curate our shelves exactly as we want to, free from the pressures to sell whatever flash-in-the-pan cultural phenomenon comes around if we don’t want to support it. The result is an array of books that come predominantly from small presses, often in translation, generally on the literary end of the scale in terms of fiction, and on the lefty, philosophical end of the scale in terms of non-fiction. There is no mistaking that we have a particular taste.
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