JoBa Cafe: Rethinking Our Mission

This post was written by Ede Reynolds. To see her other posts, click here.

Bookstores used to be a place where you went to discover something new or something that would entertain you– much like a library except you got to pay for the book and keep it forever. That’s what it was like when we opened our doors 22 years ago. In the ensuing years the Internet changed all that. Now, much of what you read is online, and in the case of Google Books, it is for free. This has forced bookstores and libraries to rethink their purpose in the community.

Our company has more than 80,000 books listed for sale online, books that sit in boxes on shelves in a warehouse. When one sells, we retrieve it and ship it out to every part of the world (even Antarctica). But people still, on occasion, come into the store to buy books the old-fashioned way and that is why our first floor maintains a selection of general knowledge titles. For collectors and scholars, the second floor contains older, more specialized titles and bindings. And there is a third component, those things that sell at trade shows to serious collectors.

So, if most people buy books online, what is the role of the bookstore? Economic development people like bookstores because it hearkens to a more genteel time. Bookstores announce, “This is a literate town, one that appreciates learning”‘ But bookstores aren’t just “window dressing.” We have a role in the new computer-connected world.

For us, that role is to be a community hub, providing a gathering place of convivial people, providing food during the daytime hours. Patrons might encounter a local author signing his or her latest book. They might encounter live music.

One thing that has not changed in the 22 years in downtown Waterbury is that our business must constantly decide to make photo (2)changes according to the market. For us, that means expanding what we offer. We tried in the past with music. Two former employees (Andrew Sayler and Amanda Mastropietro) hosted open mics at two different times in our history.

As you can see by the picture to the right, one such night inspired painter Raechel Guest to record a live performance. We have hosted poetry readings as well as lectures by notable authors (Alice Quinn the former editor of poetry for the New Yorker and the current editor of Poetry Magazine introduced her book about Elizabeth Bishop; Psychiatrist Charlie Atkins used to provide spooky window displays at Halloween when his newest mystery was released; and professor Joanna Clapps Herman’s books on growing up Italian; as well as Dr. Raymond Sullivan’s early American historical novels are among those we had the pleasure to meet).

photo (1)But we intend to do more. With the addition of our new tea room, we have a pleasant, more intimate space in which to hold small gatherings. We are committing ourselves anew to prompting the arts. We’re calling it the Bale Lyceum.

We plan to host a series of educational programs this spring on Saturday afternoons. Some of the programs include: mid twentieth century jewelry discussed and appraised, write your life (how to do a short autobiography), the history of the Victorian tea, and more.

The discussion our staff has about the direction the store takes has come up with a recurring theme–we are a springboard for others. Aside from hosting book signings for local authors, we want to expand to offer gallery space in our windows, programs and events that bring people together in a convivial atmosphere, and space where artists can hone their craft–writers’ workshops, music composition, and more.

We came to this conclusion for two reasons. There is a demand. Many customers have approached us to provide a center for people to come and meet others of a like-minded interest. The second reason is that we can do this at times when parking is not an issue.

Recently, an article appeared in the newspaper addressing parking concerns among merchants. There are many and valid concerns that should be addressed. But we have taken a lead in trying to rebuild around those issues, hence the Saturday afternoon teas.

If you look at the picture of Joanna’s book lecture, you can see a full house or people, at night, filling our shop. This means that if you have something of interest, people will show up. If hindrances are put in their way–crime, parking tickets, sidewalks filled with ice or snow, etc. the number attending decreases.

We will be sending out information about our upcoming events and I hope you will participate. With plenty of parking on the street on Saturdays, downtown is especially nice. We aim to make it nicer.

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