[Editor’s note: Rhode Island’s independent bookstores have been loyal supporters of authors of Rhode Island state and local history books and their readers. This week we are pleased to interview Robert (Bob) Ryan, the current Owner and Manager of Wakefield Books, located in The Wakefield Shopping Center, 160 Old Tower Hill Road, Wakefield. Bob gives a terrific sense of the challenges and pleasures of owning and operating an independent book store]
Question: Please let the readers know of your background.
I was born in upstate New York and moved to Rhode Island in 1983. I’ve worked in bookstores on and off since I got a part-time job at Lauriat’s books while going to school at URI. After graduating, I stayed with books working as a manager and district manager for chains like Lauriat’s, Borders, and Waldenbooks. When this store was still Waldenbooks and became available, I jumped at the chance because I’ve always loved the store and its location. Since Waldenbooks was a part of Borders, its demise forced the closing of this store. However, with help from the mall ownership, we were able to reopen this store as a locally owned independent bookstore just a few months after Waldenbooks’s demise. Now we have a bookstore run by passionate readers who cater to our customers here in South County rather than a generic national chain. It’s been a challenge like any small business, but we owe all of our success to our customers.
Question: What are the challenges faced by independent book stores?
Four or five years ago bookstores thought the biggest threat to their existence was the rise of e-books, whose growth was impressive the first few years they came out. However, as time has gone on, that growth has slowed and sales have fallen off. Print books have made a comeback. Some think it’s due to rising prices of e-books. Others think many early adopters of the format couldn’t stick with it and missed reading print books. Publishers stayed committed to print too. I think there’s enough room for both, but e-books are a totally different product and a different experience from print. Some people are tired of spending their entire day looking at a screen whether it’s a computer, TV, a phone or tablet. The pleasure and magic of reading is a secret we want to share.
Another challenge is online competition, since no matter where you are geographically; shopping online is always a factor. It has become popular for many, and it often makes sense, but by supporting local businesses readers can strengthen their community in a number of ways. Customers recognize this and the shop local movement has been a simple and successful way for people who care about their community to make a difference.
I’d have to say our biggest challenge is just continuing to promote books and reading in general. There’s nothing better than hearing from parents that their child—who previously did not enjoy reading—is now hooked because of a title or series we recommended. I think all independent bookstores feel this way. Many “indies” consider themselves allies and very often work in cooperation with each other as members of NEIBA (The New England Independent Booksellers Association) or nationally as members of the ABA (American Booksellers Association). We get together a few times each year to compare notes and build on each other’s success.
Question: How did Wakefield Books weather the most recent recession?
It’s never easy. The great thing about bookselling is the diversity of books that we carry helps insulate us from some economic downturns. If mysteries aren’t selling this month maybe biographies are strong. Children’s books continue to do well. Parents may choose to forgo that new book for themselves, but they don’t want their kids to go without a book, and buying a book for a child is never a bad idea. We hear parents say all the time that books are something they rarely say “no” to their children. We feel books are still the best and most economical form of entertainment out there. How much does it cost to go to a movie? Or a concert, or a sports game? When you think about the amount of hours of entertainment you get from a book, it’s a very economical form of entertainment. And how many hours is a movie? And that’s just for entertainment; there’s the knowledge side of it too. We have books that help people in their daily lives whether it’s a test prep book, a book on gardening, or eating healthy, getting a job, starting a business. There is always something that gets hot each year and like 50 Shades of Grey Book 3 in 2012, or The Hunger Games in 2013. Recently we’ve had Game of Thrones, Gone Girl, and the adult coloring book craze.
Question: Wakefield Books probably has the widest selection of Rhode Island and other local history books of any bookstore in the state. Why have you made this decision?
Before we went independent we were owned by a large chain and we were at the mercy of its buyers who were located outside of New England. They didn’t understand or care about the demand for local interest books and when we pleaded for local books, they’d send us books about Boston. So that was an important priority early on as an independent bookstore to build up the best selection we could of local interest books. Now our customers both local and seasonal recognize and appreciate the selection we’ve put together and there are new titles coming out every month. We are also proud to support local authors who self-publish and carry a number of those titles as well so our local writers have an outlet for their books.
Question: What are some of the ways you promote Rhode Island and other local history books?
We keep a large display, either at the front counter or somewhere nearby, of our featured local interest books. We rotate fresh titles on a regular basis. We have the rest of the state and local history books together on shelves near the front counter as well. Our website and our monthly email newsletter have sections dedicated to local interest and highlight four or five titles each month. As our social media presence improves, we’re also able to use periodic Facebook posts to spotlight titles that may have been under the radar. Local authors sometimes appear at our store to promote their books and the interaction between them and their readers is very rewarding to see.
Question: What are the top three Rhode Island or other local history books that are your best sellers currently?
Our current best sellers are a mix of new releases and old favorites.
The Larchmont Disaster by Joseph P. Soares and Janice Soares
A chronicle of one of the greatest disasters in New England’s waters when on February 11, 1907, the steamship Larchmont collided with a schooner off the coast of Block Island. Nearly 150 passengers were lost.
Weekend Walks in Rhode Island by Ken Weber
The bible for hiking and walking Rhode Island’s diverse natural and historic treasures. We sell hundreds of copies every year.
Down to the Point by Cindy Follett Guldemond
This is Cindy’s second book about the commercial fishing port of Point Judith and its rich history. Men and women toiled both ashore and at sea for over a century to make it one of most important fishing centers in Rhode Island. This book serves as a reminder of the importance of our maritime past by introducing us to the people who for decades traveled down to the Point.
Forgotten Tales of Rhode Island by Jim Ignasher
Ignasher digs deep into Rhode Island’s history and unearths little-known stories and folklore that span three centuries, delivering a strong dose of local color in a fascinating anecdotal history of the Ocean State.
Question: What are a few Rhode Island or other local history books that are your personal favorites?
My all-time favorite is still Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti.
My father was only five years old and living in Newport, but he still remembers it. It is such a great book, especially the way the author describes not only the devastation to all the towns and places we’re so familiar with, but also how they had no idea it was coming.[Banner image: Rhode Island history and other books, many written by our team of authors here at smallstatebighistory, are displayed at Wakefield Books]