A New Chapter | Local Treasure

The Bay State bookstore that A Wimpy Kid built is all about imagination and possibility. Learn more about An Unlikely Story in Plainville, MA.

By Joe Bills

Dec 17 2016

An Unlikely Story

Jeff Kinney in An Unlikely Story, the bookstore-café he owns with wife Julie. He’s also a publishing superstar, with 180 million copies of his Wimpy Kid books now in print.

Photo Credit : Tom Struzziero
An Unlikely Story
Jeff Kinney in An Unlikely Story, the bookstore-café he owns with wife Julie. He’s also a publishing superstar, with 180 million copies of his Wimpy Kid books now in print.
Photo Credit : Tom Struzziero

Year after year, the residents of Plainville, Massachusetts, would walk by the closed storefront on South Street and think about what could be. Everyone, it seemed, had a dream for the 19th-century building, which most recently had served as Falk’s Market but had also been, at various points, a barbershop, a tearoom, and a drugstore.

Jeff and Julie Kinney were among those daydreaming passersby. If your family includes children of a certain age, you’ll know Jeff Kinney’s work: He wrote Diary of a Wimpy Kid in 2004 as an online series for the educational-game site Funbrain, where it attracted an estimated 20 million readers and launched one of the most lucrative properties in publishing, with 11 best-selling books, a popular movie series, a stage musical, and all the related toys, games, and merchandise one would expect.

When the Kinneys moved to Plainville in 2002, Falk’s Market already had been shuttered for a decade. The couple chose the former manufacturing town of 8,200, located about 20 minutes north of Providence, Rhode Island, because it was convenient to Boston as well as to Worcester, Massachusetts, where Julie had grown up.

In 2012 the Kinneys purchased the old building, which was in extreme disrepair, with plans to rehabilitate it as a center of community activity. But one contractor after another told them that it was too far gone to be saved. The building had to come down—and so it did. Unexpectedly working from a blank slate, the Kinneys soon reshaped their vision for the property. The result: a modern three-story building that reaches to the future while celebrating the past. An Unlikely Story Bookstore and Café was born.

“The goal was to fill a gap,” says Shaelyn Germain, programs director for An Unlikely Story. “They wanted to offer something that wasn’t available nearby, a comfortable place where you would want to stay awhile. It is a bookstore and café, but it is also a flexible and creative community space. There were many discussions about all of the possibilities. To see the evolution from ideas to actuality is fantastic.”

The new building’s exterior captures some of its predecessor’s essence, including the porch, which had long been a popular gathering spot. Inside, the first-floor retail store offers many quirky gift items alongside a broad selection of books. The café serves sandwiches, organic food, and locally roasted coffee. Vintage business signs that once adorned the old exterior now ring the upper walls of the retail space. One of these signs is original, while the others are hand-painted replicas crafted by Providence Painted Signs. Good luck figuring out which is which.

There are surprises and discoveries throughout the building, and, true to the store’s name, many of its features have stories every bit as good as those in the books that surround them. The floors are reclaimed maple from the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the Putnam Nail Company building in Dorchester, Massachusetts. There are ceiling beams from the former Atlas Terminal Warehouse in Providence. Old fruit and vegetable crates from Falk’s Market have found new life as part of a display table. The furniture lining the porch is made from Indonesian boat wood salvaged after the 2004 tsunami.

The spaces are adaptable and marked by a sense of whimsy at every turn. Above the children’s book section, a flock of Harry Potter books spread their wings and soar to the ceiling. You may find an original Jeff Kinney sketch on a chalkboard, left the last time he passed by. Depending on the day of your visit, the author himself may be out on the floor, stocking shelves.

The second-floor meeting room has hosted dinners and author events, as well as yoga classes and community meetings. On the third floor is Jeff’s office, an open-concept space where kids can see mementos of the Wimpy Kid franchise and maybe even observe the creative process. At center stage in the office is yet another surprise: a 300-pound statue of Scrooge McDuck, one of Jeff’s prized possessions.

The lesson of An Unlikely Story is that preserving and building on the essence of a space is sometimes more important than saving the structure itself. “Falk’s Market served as the nerve center for Plainville for decades, and our goal was to create an equally vital gathering place for the community,” Jeff says. “We think the new building has created a spark, and we expect it to be the center of community activities for decades to come.”

An Unlikely Story. 11 South St., Plainville, MA. 508-699-0244;