Paper Nautilus Books in Providence, Rhode Island, is a fine destination for devoted readers. Located in the East Side’s Wayland Square neighborhood among restaurants, cafes, and boutiques, its unprepossessing storefront barely hints at the pleasures inside. But before you step through the door, take a few minutes to rummage through the crates of bargain books outside, which are only $1, and veer toward high quality hardbacks.
You might guess that the shop was named after the Marianne Moore poem, but the bookshop’s website suggests an alternate inspiration:
The delicate natural object we call a “paper nautilus” is the paper-thin shell of the aquatic animal known as an argonaut, a free-swimming octopus of the genus Argonauta found throughout the world in warm ocean waters.
Once inside the tidy and well-organized shop, you’ll appreciate the mellow lighting (not too dark, not too glaring – just right for reading). The Paper Nautilus also has a very mild but pleasant scent of used books.
(Sometimes used bookshops –usually named something like ‘the book barn,” especially in damp locations –have a more alarming smell, such as the mildewed damp caused by books disintegrating from vigorous freeze/thaw cycles. (Apologies to book barns where this does not apply.) But like a finely balanced perfume, a used bookshop with a decent HVAC system maintains a soupçon of the classic old book scent aroma, without overwhelming one. A British chemistry teacher has created a helpful infographic about the Aroma of Books, explaining why old ones can smell of vanilla and almonds. It’s the breakdown of lignin, for one.)
Located in Providence, the home of the Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, Providence College, and Johnson & Wales University, it’s not surprising to find a strong and extremely well chosen collection of art, architecture, and literary fiction books. In addition, it has a great selection of cultural studies and poetry books, including independent and scholarly self-published works. In fact, the Paper Nautilus is one of our favorite places to discover excellent independent publishers and micropresses, as well as nicely chosen self-published works, chapbooks, and the occasional zine.
As a side note, if you are interested in “outsider press,” check out Gimlet Reader’s rather comprehensive twitter list (see @gimletreader – Lists: Small-Academic-Indie Pubs). We recognized many of our favorite imprints on the shelves of the Paper Nautilus. The shop also has a good selection of foreign language literature, particularly Italian and Portuguese.
Also reflecting the local art and design-focused culture, the shop features small artworks, handmade cards, even some vintage clothes and antiques. There are small houseplants on the window sill, and a children’s section in the back. The rear door opens to a little courtyard, where a lovely Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (Royal Purple Smoketree) was in bloom. We observed some dog-walking, artistic flaneurs ogling a fabulous vintage ashtray. A picturesque fellow, who would not have been out of place in a Manet painting, sat in a comfortable chair while we browsed, completing the scene.
If you are unable to visit in person, The Paper Nautilus has an Amazon shop.
Wayland Square • 5 South Angell, Providence, RI 02906 • (401) 521-5533
*As always, we are stealthy bookshop visitors. No compliments or favors were exchanged for this review.
After your visit, walk down the street to visit Books on the Square.