As an arts editor, “calendar highlights” columnist, features writer and informed reader, I’ve covered the doings of RJ Julia Booksellers for over 15 years. (The store itself is 22.) I’ve interviewed such shop-sponsored authors as Christopher Hitchens and Brad Meltzer. I’ve previewed hundreds of booksigning events and charity fundraisers at the shop. My family has browsed there many times, and even attended a theatrical performance of chapter-book superstarlet Junie B. Jones.
In all those years, all those opportunities, I don’t believe I have ever once met or talked to RJ Julia’s founder and owner Roxanne Coady.
I say this not because I want to suggest that Ms. Coady does not work 24/7, and wear oodles of hats, in her quest to run the ideal independent bookstore. She is indeed the cover by which RJ Julia is judged. What I do want to make clear is that RJ Julia is a large, vital community operation, succeeding on many levels, impressively staving off the continual threats to the demise of the bookselling industry, involving many committed staff members and customers in the pursuit of a literary community gathering place.
This is not one of those little bookshops (love them as I do) where a single person behind a small desk in the corner determines the personality, scope, attitude and atmosphere of the place. RJ Julia is much grander than that.
Which is why, when I received Coady’s latest monthly “Dear Reader” email this morning, in which she effectively announces her retirement from day-to-day operations at the store, I took heart.
The email reads, in part:
We think it’s … time for R.J. Julia to grow in new ways, in the care of new hands that will guide the store to take its proper place in a new world; a changing of the guard in a time of change.
Rest assured: This is not an end for R.J. Julia, but simply a new beginning. The store will not close. We are determined to see R.J. Julia survive and thrive into the future. And there is good reason to think it can. The last few months have shown a resurgence of support and sales for independents across the country. There is even talk of this being the beginning of a renaissance for independent bookselling.
I concur with that thinking and believe that R.J. Julia and our community deserve to take advantage of this renaissance. To do this successfully, the store needs a new steward. Two venerable bookstores have seamlessly been transferred to new owners over the last couple of years–Politics & Prose in Washington, DC and Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA. The new owners are innovating, investing and reinventing–it is extraordinarily exciting to witness. I have spent many hours talking with the new and old owners and feel confident that we can accomplish as seamless a transfer at R.J. Julia.
So we will begin the process. I am committed to being patient in order to find the right person and to do this the right way. The first and foremost priority is putting this big, cherished baby we call R.J. Julia into the right hands. All that has been accomplished in these years is now part of R.J. Julia’s DNA–all the staff have left their mark, all the authors have left their inspiration. And all conversations, joy, sadness and ideas that you have left– it’s all still here.
You’ve got to love that fluid epistolary style Coady has, knowing that she’s writing to an audience of readers and doesn’t have to distill her complex thoughts about leaving the business she birthed into a series of soundbites or tweets.
Coady’s built an institution that deserves to endure, and she knows it. It’s unusual, I think, for supporters to be let in on the transition so early in the process, actually being asked if they know of any worthy candidates for the gig.
I’ve been in the book business myself—managed a couple of shops, owned one of them for a short while, dwelled in the antiquarian and used-book and library realm as well. I think Roxanne Coady’s optimism is justified. There are no end of capable bookstore managers out there. Yes, a lot of shops have gone under, and the demise or depression of the major national book chains (which once helped hasten the closing of some of those small shops), but there’s plenty of evidence that well-run small bookstores with realistic expectations and a genuine desire for community outreach can endure and thrive. By positioning itself as the booksigning and author-appearance capital of Connecticut, RJ Julia has not just a neighborhood feel but a cutting-edge reputation of the place where you can hear about bestsellers before they happen, latch onto trends early or simply find out that your favorite writers have new books out.
A moment of silent reading, please, in honor of Roxanne Coady’s pioneering spirit. Followed a loud, live-recitation hurrah for the RJ Julia reading revolutions yet to come.