Is The Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, the most unusual bookstore in New England?
All photos/art by Julie Bidwell
Nestled in a wooded corner of Niantic, Connecticut, is a playground like no other. Little girls pick through garden paths searching for big, apathetic cats to cuddle; boys chase one another around a wooden fort; and an energetic dog pleads for someone to play ball with him.
And all around this fantastic scene, filling every nook and cranny of a barn, two houses, a couple of tents, several sheds, and an outhouse, are books — more than 350,000 books. One baffled kid on his first visit turned to his father to say, “This is a fun place!”
Randi White and his wife, Maureen (a.k.a. “Mo”), have been shattering children’s prejudices about used bookstores for 20 years. What started as a room with a couch and three bookcases has grown into a sprawling complex of themed buildings. They never had a plan for the literary wonderland they created — just a jolly disposition and a pack rat mentality. Quirky jokes and kitschy junk have a way of finding permanent homes at The Book Barn in Niantic. Pointing to a pen holding two pygmy goats (the store’s most popular residents), Randi explains, “One day some friends just showed up with some goats in the back of their truck … That’s just the way things work here.”
This whimsical store attracts some serious book lovers, too. It’s become a pilgrimage site for bibliophiles across the region — including anyone looking to purge their old collections and stock up on cheap paperbacks. Many even make a day of it, spreading out on the lawn for a lunchtime picnic. Randi estimates that he buys at least a thousand books a day and sells about a quarter-million a year.
Financial success has given Randi and Mo the freedom to transform their store into a tool to get kids excited about reading. They espouse a hook-’em-while-they’re-young approach. It doesn’t matter whether the kids are there primarily for the playground or the animals, Randi asserts: “Deep down inside, they’re associating that good time with being at a bookstore.”
Is it working? If you ask Randi, he’ll proudly show you a sign given to him by one exasperated mother. Its childish scrawl reads: “Can we go to Randi’s soon?” It had been left around the house so often she’d taken it away. Days later she returned to The Book Barn and gave the sign to Randi. Her child, already working on a new sign, tugged on Randi’s pant leg and asked the correct spelling of “desperate.”
The Book Barn, 41 West Main St., Niantic, CT. 860-739-5715; bookbarnniantic.com
Second location: The Book Barn Downtown, 269 Main St., Niantic, CT. 860-691-8078
Hours: daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day