Success Stories: The Book Barn
Like the rumors of Mark Twain’s death, the reports of the demise of books—you know, those things with paper pages and bindings—have been greatly exaggerated. That, at least, is the operative philosophy of Randi and Maureen White, the enterprising couple who, two years ago, opened another used-book shop in Niantic—their third. Stretched out along a half-mile of SR 156 (official addresses are 41, 269 and 291 West Main Street), Niantic Book Barn is home to nearly half a million books and may, in fact, now be the largest book venue in New England. What started in 1988 in a single three-story barn and a few outbuildings has blossomed, during the same years in which the Internet rose to ascendancy, into what Larry McMurtry tried (and failed) to do in his boyhood Texas home—turn an entire town into a book destination.
Indeed, thanks to the Whites, little Niantic is gigantic with books.
To bibliophiles, the appeal of the Niantic Book Barn is an open secret. A destination for book scouts from all over the country and book lovers around the state—Randi White estimates most buyers come from 50 or more miles away—it rewards regular visits. The stock constantly changes and books are priced reasonably (most around $4), greatly improving chances of finding little treasures. But even non-collectors flock here, for the full Niantic Book Barn “experience.”
“Randi and Maureen put a lot of effort to make the place inviting,” says Glenn Shea, who mans the front desk at the main barn.
Among the inviting touches are things as simple as free coffee, Cheese Nips and mini-donuts, decent music unobtrusively played over speakers, gardens, benches, chairs and tables (with chess sets at the ready), and play areas for kids.
Also appealing to the youngsters are the animals. Yes, animals. In addition to a veritable army of friendly cats who wander at will, a caged area houses a family of goats, suitable for petting and feeding. The congeniality and lack of pretension is seen and felt everywhere, from the laminated “cat spotting” guides to the “Rednek Reedin’ Room” (an outhouse filled with hiking books), “The Underworld,” an open-air structure (“Welcome to Hades . . . hot in the summer and cold in the winter”) housing travel guides, and the “Haunted Book Shop,” a separate house that holds more mysteries than all of Connecticut could read in one winter.
Shea, a world-class poet who recently shared a stage with former Poet Laureate Donald Hall, came to “the barn” 15 years ago after working in retail bookselling.
“Someone once asked Randi if he’s a collector and he said no, he’s an accumulator,” says Shea, who keeps an entertaining blog about books on the shop’s website. “The rest of us who work here aren’t collectors, per se, we’re readers. Working here is like the proverbial fat man working in a restaurant.”
Niantic itself may retain its “sleepy” appeal, but the three book barns are seldom napping.
“It used to be that winter was a slow season, a time when we would do projects and reorganize shelving,” says Shea. “There is no slow season anymore. People rely on us for their winter reading.”