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Earlier this week, Salon published a fantastic slide show of some of the world’s most beautiful and awe inspiring bookstores, a list that included many well known stops on the book lover’s travel itinerary. In the spirit of that same quest, author Jessica Francis Kane takes us Book Clubbing to a lesser known book mecca, Connecticut’s R.J. Julia, a shop that for 20 years has been a destination for those seeking shelter from the boxed store storm.
There is an art to the bookstore greeting. It mustn’t be as upbeat and cheerful as the sort of welcome one gets entering, say, a Gap, but at the same time, it is nice to be seen, acknowledged, the tacit understanding conveyed that you are both lovers of books. This has been my experience every time I’ve walked into RJ Julia. It’s just one of the dozens of things the store does right.
RJ Julia has everything that makes a bookstore great: a beautiful space, a lively event series, shelf-talkers everywhere (in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a book without one in the store), a passionate and knowledgeable staff, an upstairs room for meetings and book clubs. It is clearly a vibrant part of the community it serves. But my relationship with RJ Julia is an unusual one. It is not my hometown store, so I can’t go often. It’s located, however, in a town I pass through on the way to my grandmother’s house, and so it has become a kind of pilgrimage for my family. We always stop at RJ Julia and the children know they can always get a book, a bookstore being the one kind of store in which my husband and I will not say no if they ask for something.
The RJ Julia children’s section is the best one I know. First of all, it has more books than toys, bless them. Second of all, there are as many shelf-talkers as through the rest of the store, a terrific, impromptu guide for a parent trying to help a seven-year-old’s reading life take wing, while the four-year-old is desperate for books his big sister hasn’t already read. Third, and best of all, it is on the second floor, allowing for more restful family browsing. My husband and I take turns reading to the children upstairs, while the other one gets to read and browse downstairs. The last time we were there, I was sure I’d been gone only five minutes or so when I felt a light tap on my arm. It was my daughter.
“Dad says you have to come back upstairs now.” Apparently I’d been gone almost an hour.
My husband and I used to browse together, losing ourselves for hours in bookstores wherever we traveled. But just as a reading life changes and grows, so do the patterns of one’s bookstore browsing. I’m grateful to RJ Julia for supporting the whole family so brilliantly.
JESSICA FRANCIS KANE is the author of a story collection, Bending Heaven, and a novel, The Report, which was a finalist for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the Independent Booksellers Choice Award. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including VQR, McSweeney’s, Granta, and The Morning News, where she is a contributing writer. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children.