January 2009

Gili Warsett

features

Ada Books: An Interview with Brent Legault

It’s my first time in Providence, Rhode Island, and I’ve decided to spend the day visiting the short list of local independent bookstores. It’s been a humdrum day of walking from one side of town to the other; I haven’t found that one inspiring bookstore that connects me to a city in which I am a stranger. The last stop will be Ada Books, the store I’ve read the least about. I open the door to Ada’s tiny shop. My eyes scan the shelves of literary fiction, graphic novels, and art books. As I browse each section, I become aware that the owner has not only ensured that my favorite books are stocked, he has also hand-selected rare treasures which I had not known were missing from my reading list until they are right in front of me.

I turn to the man sitting behind the desk and introduce myself. He is Brent Legault and his bookstore, Ada Books is a modest, carefully curated collection of books that makes Providence feel a little more like a place I want to be.

How did your literary life develop?

Like many other only children (until I was 11), I spent a lot of time dreaming. Books were a way of directing the dreams or of dreaming someone else’s dreams. As a boy it was all sharks and vampires. As a teen, it was evil overlords and orcish hoards. Now, I’m obsessed with books about obsessive people and their obsessions.

Why did you decide to create Ada Books?

I’d managed a new and used bookstore in New Orleans for many years. Three floors of books (about 70,000) and I lived on the fourth floor. It was a great place to work but it was also stifling, stagnant. The shop and the whole city, to a certain degree, was a museum; an old-fashioned museum, where past glories were walled up behind glass, then tagged and codified, like a Victorian “living” tableaux. Beautiful to behold but a bit dull to be a part of. My wife got a job offer in Providence. We took it and I opened my shop a few months later.

What is your personal connection to Providence? What have been some of the major changes in the city since you’ve lived there?

We moved here because of my wife’s job and because we both had an interest in New England, apple cider, maple syrup, headless horsemen. The city hasn’t changed much since I’ve lived here (2 1⁄2 years). Most of the changes, the “Providence Renaissance” happened in the late '90s-early 2000s. But I like the city. I sometimes wish it were a little larger but I like it. I like it for its bruises and broken teeth as well as its friendly citizens and charming décor.

In some ways, Providence struck me as a sleepy, almost passive town, eclipsed by Boston and New York. Is this an accurate impression?

Sleepy? Well, it doesn’t stay up as late as New York or Boston but I wouldn’t call it “sleepy.” Or at least I wouldn’t call it any more “sleepy” than any other medium-sized American city. In some ways, it is a bedroom community to Boston, though no die-hard Providencean would ever admit to that. A lot of big events, big businesses, big deals pass it by. But during waking hours, say between 6am to midnight, Providence is a spry old gal, you betcha.

Are you saying that there is a vibrant atmosphere or a vitality in Providence that doesn’t exist in New Orleans?

Well the vitality I mentioned is literary. New Orleans certainly has more drunks and more places to get drunk and more reasons to get drunk than Providence does, and perhaps that’s why there is a foaming or fomenting literary scene here. Because bars close early and it’s cold for six months of the year, etc. Brown and RISD and New England in general attract more (and better) poets and prosists than New Orleans. And they get more work done, too.

Describe the literary scene in Providence.

Frothy.

Frothy, how? Like foaming at the mouth frothy, or A&W root beer frothy?

Not frothy like epilepsy, rabies or St. Vitus’ Dance, but not frothy like the head of a root beer float either. What kind of frothy then? The kind of froth that appears on the surface of the sea where dolphins have been mating, if there is such a froth as that.

You recently moved locations. What was the motivation for the change?

I’d been robbed three times. What’s the old saying? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, shame on my landlord for not investing in security gates. Another space, a safer space, opened up around the corner and I jumped on it.

When I visited your old location, it seemed very isolated in location from the other independent bookstores in Providence. Do you have much connection with the other stores?

I’m still isolated. We’re all somewhat isolated. There is no book district here in Providence. It makes me want to cry just thinking about the days when a book district could exist anywhere on earth. I can barely identify the other booksellers. I don’t have time to get to know them. We keep the same hours, more or less, and so I’m always here and never there.

What has been one of the major learning curves about opening your own store?

Before I opened my shop I thought all a person had to do to be successful in this business was to put good books on the shelves and wait for customers to buy them. But I found that word of mouth, at least in my case, does not travel at the speed of sound. And I have no money to advertise with, except through handbills and flyers. When I do have a little extra money, I spend it on books. I’m still trapped on that learning curve, by the bye. Business is good this month but next month I’m sure to be sitting here, alone, wishing for some company, and that learning curve could easily turn into a dead man’s curve.

How do you choose your selection?

Instinct and experience. Mostly experience. I’ve been buying and selling books for fifteen years now. Not that I know it all. This business has many clever avenues I’ve yet to stumble down.

Are there some books that you always try to keep in stock?

I’m always on the lookout for the Goodtime Charlies. These are authors that everyone seems to love: Brautigan, Bukowski, Vonnegut, Vollman, McCarthy, Murakami. A few others. It’s a shame they are mostly men. I can’t think of any lady Charlies but I’m sure there are some.

How about Munro, McCullers, Eisenberg, Paley, Ozick, Hooks, Sontag, and Didion? Are any of these staples?

Staples, yes, but not Goodtime Charlies, I’m afraid. Munro and Sontag come close, but they tend to linger on the shelf a bit too long, though I’m happy to let them linger as long as they like. The same goes for Eisenberg, Paley, Ozick (poor, Ozick; I have six or eight of her books on my shelves and no one has asked them to dance in a long, long while), Hooks and Didion. McCullers qualifies as a Goodtime Charlie down south. So does Flannery O’Conner. A Goodtime Charlie never languishes, never has time to rot.

What is your favorite book?

Favorite book is hard and my answer will vary from year to year. Favorite author is a cinch: Vladimir Nabokov. Favorite book right now: Despair. And, well, Ada, of course.