Ada Books is closing in August in Providence, Rhode Island after 13 years of operation. Brian Legault is the owner. It’s a particularly well-curated store — they advertise plenty of zines and I later picked up a John McPhee book and a copy of Astounding Science Fiction from 1954 for two bucks; someone writing for Bookslut noted how well curated the selection was in 2009 — and the combination of such a specific store sitting next to White Electric Coffee across the street from a high school defines the near-beginning of Federal Hill well.
I visited near the end of July. Heavy metal guitar licks play off a speaker perched in the background to compliment Legault’s work sweeping the floors and nearly overwhelm the quality of the audio recording our chat. When we sit down to chat, he’s wearing a black-and-white t-shirt done up a bit like the shirt of a heavy metal or punk band fond of Mad Magazine from the 80’s that reads, “READING IS FUN!”
The reason why Legault closing is clear: he can’t make enough money selling books. And he’s a bookseller in every sense of the word: not only did he talk for a moment about the idea of raising his kid in the bookstore (“He had two years here, and he loves books. He especially loves to play with books as physical objects — and read, obviously, but …”), but he also cares about the details, too.
That comes out when he talks about some of his favorite things at the store being “little things, stupid things, like, expediting some books, you know — pricing or putting them away, which is really boring to most people, but — to me — it’s exciting. The best days were when I bought a big collection and had to go through it to see what I had — see what was good, see what was bad. Or, honestly — other favorite memories — favorite times — are when I reorganized something.” And, here, Legault gestured to an area behind me. “Kids books didn’t used to be in the front.”
Above: video from the poet Chen Chen reading at Ada Books in 2014.
“I had 200 reading events here,” he continued. “Poets, mostly. Kate Schapira — a great poet in her own right — Professor at Brown — she ran a really cool book-reading series, poetry reading, primarily — here for — well, since 2007. The last one was in the spring of this year. I assume she’s going to keep it going, but I don’t know where it’s going to be — maybe she’ll even have it at her house. She has a big house.”
After the store closes, Brent plans to teach. The inadvertent community that’s built up as a result of the bookstore “will be fine.”
What is he losing with the store going away?
“The biggest loss for me is my identity. I’m not going to be a bookseller anymore. I’m going to be just another person, which is fine — it’s probably what led to my holding onto it for too long. I should have gotten out. If it was purely business, I would have probably gotten out after three years. And I really wanted to do this until I was 75 years old. I really thought that was going to happen, but my revenue over the last few years had plummeted. And I’m coming in and losing money, working for nothing: I’ve got a kid — I’m stuck here on the weekends. My wife is off. They get to do fun stuff together. I want to go do fun stuff with my family.”
As for what pushed Legault to make the decision, one of the culprits is a familiar one.
“Amazon’s been around for a long time, but … it’s encroached. It’s too easy. It’s just entered every aspect of our lives. Literature is a little bit more than ‘just a product,’ and that’s it’s downfall. You’ve got to have people who are really into books to support bookstores. You’ve got to have enough. You’ve got to have a real critical mass or else it doesn’t work. You don’t have to have a critical mass of people who need shoes, because everybody needs shoes. But a bookstore needs a certain amount of people — readers, real readers are already a minority. A real small minority of any congregation. And readers who are going to go into a bookstore are an even smaller population.”
“Do you think the U.S. would benefit from some kind of version of Lang’s Law?” I asked.
A young man with a full beard entered the store. Legault nodded a hello and returned to our conversation.
“I’m not an artist. I’m kind of a dilettante. I have taste, you know? It’s my taste. Dilettante is not a nice word — I don’t mean it in a not nice way. I mean it in a sort of ironic way. I have taste and this” — that is, the store — “is my little art project: showing off my taste, because I can’t produce art myself. And now it’s gone.”