Stepping into a bookstore means possibility: shelves full of brightly colored titles; the sharp, clean smell of books. There might be armchairs for reading, or the scent of brewed coffee in the air. No matter the decor or the locale, an afternoon of browsing offers worlds to explore or to revisit.
In the past decades, the advent of the internet and online book buying has challenged independent bookstores, driving many to close and others to barely hang on. Indeed, even the big chains have been affected, driven into bankruptcy. Many communities have been left without a bookstore at all.
That’s no longer the case in Worcester.
In the past two years, the city has been lucky enough to welcome not just one but three new independent bookstores, all owned by couples committed to the city and to the life of books. Every store has a unique ambiance and approach, and while each has its fans, a reader can happily move from one to the other, finding different but complementary experiences.
At Bedlam Book Cafe on Green Street, Nicole DiCello and Patrick Warner sell used books — and smoothies — in a renovated corner of an old factory. At Root & Press in Tatnuck Square, Rich Collins and Nicole Cote combine a meticulously curated selection of new fiction and nonfiction with a cafe that draws upon Collins’ background as a chef. Further down Chandler Street, Jo and Huck Truesdell run the newest of the three: TidePool Bookshop. They offer new fiction and nonfiction. A child-sized mousehole in a free-standing wall leads into the children’s section, designed by Mrs. Truesdell, a retired kindergarten teacher.
Combined, the three stores have created a vibrant new book scene in Worcester for booklovers and booklovers-to-be of all ages.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate small businesses in the city and around the world, forcing new and creative approaches to reaching customers. The Worcester bookstores, like bookstores everywhere, sharpened their online presence and turned to curbside pickup and delivery, sometimes by hand. Now that restrictions have eased, their doors are open, albeit cautiously and for more limited hours. Everyone looks forward to the day when customers can once more wander in at will to peruse the shelves. In the meantime, what better way to get through a global pandemic than by reading a book?
Bedlam Book Cafe
138 Green Street
Proprietors: Nicole DiCello and Patrick Warner
Given the city’s history, it fits that the kickoff to Worcester’s bookselling renaissance was a used bookstore in a renovated factory in the heart of the dynamic Canal District. Bedlam Book Cafe opened in late 2018 in Crompton Place, the former Crompton Loom Works, on Green Street. Owners Nicole DiCello and Patrick Warner have created a warm and welcoming space, with comfortable armchairs and carpets covering the hardwood floor. Bookshelves run nearly the length of the store, interspersed by display tables. At the back, a small cafe offers smoothies.
As a used bookstore, Bedlam has an eclectic inventory. With the freedom to dispense with the customary commercial categories common in new bookstores, DiCello and Warner are able to expand and contract their inventory as they choose.
“Used bookstores are a treasure trove,” says DiCello. “You can have things that have fallen out of fashion, quirky esoteric publications that have been long forgotten.”
“It’s a treasure trove and a resource for curious people,” Warner adds. “We can have a deep stock of things, go deep into subject matter. We’re not at all driven by what the next bestseller is.”
“We like to frame our store more along the arts and humanities and academics,” she says. “And throw in a little funkiness. You gotta have funkiness; it is a used bookstore.”
A copy of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics in Korean, for example.
“I love that,” says Warner. “We haven’t sold it yet, but some Korean Chomsky enthusiast is going to want that book.”
Living in Worcester since 2014, the couple first met in 1999, when they were both working at a medical software company.
“We’d talked about how, when we retired, we’d run a little used books store,” says Warner. “It was one of the things that drew us together — we liked poetry, literature, intellectual investigation and conversation.”
The concept remained a nebulous idea until two years ago, when DiCello found herself ready for a career change but unable to find a new job.
“I like to be really honest,” she says. “The bookstore came about out of desperation. I sent out more than 200 résumés, and I didn’t get anything. And I was barely getting any interviews. I was at the end of my rope.”
Desperation might have been the impetus, but the venture was a natural fit. They are, as the website says, “passionate about books, community, culture, curiosities, Worcester, diversity and healthful living.”
Both were drawn to the book world early on. Warner, from Massachusetts, lived before and after college in Northampton and Amherst, where he worked at the former Albion Books. He ran an online book company, Situation Books, in the early 2000s. DiCello, who grew up in Ohio and Indiana, absorbed the bookstore culture in Ithaca, New York, in college, and has an M.F.A. in poetry from Emerson College. She’s been in Massachusetts since 1997.
Once DiCello threw out the name “Bedlam” as a potential name, the idea of starting a used bookstore in Worcester became real.
Now part of the lexicon as a synonym for chaos and uproar, “Bedlam” is actually a distortion of “Bethlehem,” Britain’s 13th-century psychiatric hospital long considered the prototype for brutal treatment of the mentally ill. For the new bookstore, the name came readily, both as homage to DiCello’s favorite poet, Anne Sexton, and her book “To Bedlam and Partway Back,” and as a description of today’s political, social and economic tumult.
“What’s going on the world is just bedlam,” she says. “There is no truth anymore, there are alternative facts; it’s an insane environment. The name felt like what it needed to be. I like saying to people ‘Welcome to Bedlam.’”
Finding the ideal location took more time, and they ran into the expected false starts.
“One of our criteria was that we weren’t going to just start anywhere,” says Warner. “We know Worcester now, and we knew where it wouldn’t work.”
They wanted a space with character and foot traffic in a vibrant part of the city.
“I wanted a place that already felt like a bit of a scene,” says DiCello. “I wanted to appeal to younger people. I came of age in used bookstores. There are people now who don’t even know what a bookstore is. There are so many people in their 20s who come in and say, ‘is this a library? Can I buy this?’ Once they figure out what it is, they love it.”
Through the Canal District Alliance, they met Dino Lorusso, the magician behind the renovation of Crompton Place, and discovered that space in the former factory would soon be available.
“It was right at a time that suited us and suited them,” Warner says. “We really couldn’t believe it.”
They opened the doors on Nov. 3, 2018, with DiCello on-site full time and Warner, who continues to work in the software field, fully involved in book selection.
Eighty percent of their inventory, currently estimated at 11,000, comes from library sales. In the pre-pandemic era, they haunted them, spending many weekends visiting sales across New England.
“From a broad lens, he and I curate what we’re going to have in the store together,” she says. “We have interests that overlap and don’t overlap and go beyond. He’ll hit tables that are of interest to him. I go to poetry, science, astronomy, earth science, LGBTQ, women’s studies. He’s on history, art books, language. He’s really good at finding books that fall out of category. He picks gems.”
One of those gems was a first edition of Anne Sexton’s “To Bedlam and Partway Back.” (DiCello kept that one.)
Other finds have included a 12-volume set of Civil War photographs and, from the 1890s, “1,001 Nights”: eight leather books with gorgeous, multicolored illustrations.
At one sale, in a back room full of discarded books, Warner salvaged 35 or so volumes that had belonged to a man named Paul Flowers. After doing research, he found that Flowers had been “a journalist in the South, a friend of Faulkner.”
“There was a collection of his papers at University of Mississippi,” he says. “We ended up getting $1,500 for those books before we even opened. Nicole can never hurry me up out of a sale now.”
A first edition of a book by Henry David Thoreau, dated 1860, came from sisters in Narragansett who wanted to unload their late parents’ book collection. Bedlam sold it for $500.
Warner and DiCello also keep an eye out for books in subjects their customers want, ranging from railroads to woodworking to knitting patterns. The latter led to a do-it-yourself shelf.
In addition, “we keep a very small curated section of books that really should be read now, that are urgent and topical,” DiCello says.
Notably, this spring, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis at the hands of police and the belated revelations about Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, customers have wanted books on racism and African American history and culture. Demand left big gaps on the shelves, and Bedlam has been ordering new books in that genre.
DiCello also curates a 1,000-title poetry collection that in “amount and depth” is one of the best in used books in the state, certainly in Central Massachusetts, says Warner. Its breadth draws readers, poets and scholars.
“We once had an Irish poet, a professor of poetry in Burlington, Vermont, and we had his signed book on our shelves,” she recalls. “He was so excited … He posed for us with his book.”
As it did everywhere, the onset of the pandemic brought everything at Bedlam to a halt, and the bookstore closed in the middle of March for several weeks. During that time, DiCello and Warner worked on figuring out how to remain accessible to customers and stay in business.
Although they had deliberately not had an online presence before, DiCello now focused on developing a new website to reach customers easily.
“Thanks to Nicole, we pivoted really quickly,” says Warner.
“We changed domains, changed website providers, added a shopping cart and products online that we hadn’t done,” she says.
There were hurdles, including troubles with deliveries because they were not physically at the store, but by mid-April, they were ready to offer curbside pickup. People came for grab bags of used books, and DiCello added the service of ordering new books.
At first, she worked directly with distributors to order and ship to customers. In time, she added a shop for Bedlam on Bookshop.com, an online bookstore that serves as a conduit for independent bookstores.The site handles ordering and shipping while giving stores the profit; it offers both logistical and economic support that has been especially vital during the shutdown.
In May, DiCello began to set up Zoom poetry readings, though she was hesitant at first.
“Our whole business model is shaped around the experience of being in store,” she says. “It was psychologically difficult to accept that we had to do anything virtually.”
Instead, she discovered that virtual connection has its own merits. More people attended the Zoom events than had ever come to an in-store reading, and they logged in from all over the country. Poets, too, came from near and far. She has added a monthly Zoom open mic poetry night on Fridays.
“This is the broader reach and fight against negativity in the poetry world I was hoping to create,” she says.
Warner used the hiatus when the store was closed to catalogue Bedlam’s 200-volume inventory of rare books and post them online on an industry-used website.
By early June, with scrupulous sanitizing and face mask rules in place, Bedlam was able to welcome the public for very limited hours for the first time since March. In late August, they extended their open hours to Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. A subsequent step will be adding more hours and getting back to a sitting cafe with an expanded menu.
They’re delighted to see their customers return to browse and discover.
“One of the most gratifying things about being in the store is that people who come in are excited to see the books,” DiCello says.
Root & Press
623 Chandler St.
Proprietors: Rich Collins and Nicole Cote
The past two years have been busy for Rich Collins and Nicole Cote. In short order, they opened a brand new bookstore cafe, established a presence in the Tatnuck Square neighborhood and negotiated the challenges of an ongoing global pandemic. Oh, and they got married.
Root & Press measures at fewer than 1,000 square feet. It might be small in size, but it is mighty in spirit. The shelves hold a meticulously curated collection, its emphasis in both fiction and nonfiction on “issues of the moment and area,” says its website. In fiction, they carry a blend of contemporary titles and classics.
“Every spot on the shelf is valuable because we are so small,” says Collins. “For every slot on the shelf, I want to make sure that the book says something to somebody.”
Cote, who teaches third grade at Chandler Magnet School just down the street, cares deeply about children’s literacy and chooses every book for the children’s section based on her knowledge of text and reading level.
“To have the kids have a space where they can come and listen to stories and meet and talk with other kids about stories when they’re not in school is important,” she says. “Mom and Dad can get a coffee and sit near the kids section and the kids can read.”
“If a customer comes in and asks for a recommendation for kids, she throws me out of the way,” jokes Collins.
As a teacher and a bookseller, she feels “a sense of responsibility to be a center where educators and parents, adults, can go to find the resources they need,” she says. To that end, she selects books that aren’t necessarily bestsellers but cover important but fun issues.
Most important, she says, “is for kids to connect with the books.”
Collins has a master’s degree in history that guides his reading and selections for the bookstore, but he also spent 20 years cooking in restaurants. Cote, in addition to teaching, has loved working as a waitress on the side for years.
The cafe, like the bookstore, is far more than the sum of its parts. From the tiny kitchen, they serve full breakfasts and lunches, with a focus on creative egg dishes, sandwiches and salads. This fall, they will be opening the kitchen on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, continuing the milkshake bar they began in the summer and adding a burger bar.
The goal in starting a business was to “find something that could make money and fulfill both realms,” he says. “We wanted to be our own bosses.”
In preparation, he thought about options for two or three years, considering different locations in Central Massachusetts and in Worcester.
“We couldn’t have a huge space with a lot of tables,” he says. “We didn’t have too much funding except for ourselves. We needed to make multiple things work within a cheaper option. It’s our first business.”
When the space in Tatnuck Square became available, they fought for it.
“It was next to (Worcester State University),” Collins says. “We wanted a neighborhood place to serve college students as well as families with children. This was on a main road and visible; we wanted something modern and not too old.” Raised in Worcester, he also liked the fact that his grandmother lives up the street.
They secured the property in October 2018 and celebrated Root & Press’s grand opening in May 2019.
“It was a long winter,” he says ruefully, recalling the expected delays resulting from renovations, especially the rewiring and pipe replacement necessary to add the kitchen.
“We’d say, ‘We hope we don’t have to do that,’ and then of course we had to do that.”
At the same time, he was reviewing books, trying to create book sections in his head and building lists using bookselling software.
“I joke that I haven’t read a book in two years, but I’ve read reviews,” he says. “A lot of what I do is research books and new titles.”
Since it opened, Root & Press has become a neighborhood mainstay. Excellent food and the book selection keep customers coming back. Monthly reading groups in fiction and nonfiction focus on timely topics. Cote and Collins highlight local authors, giving prominence to their publications. Last December, the first annual Worcester Authors Holiday Festival brought over 20 writers to the bookstore to sell books and share holiday treats.
Collins added occasional online book reviews, written both by him and several others, targeting “the small community of people who follow the store and want to be a part of the store, to give them something that’s curated but in a way that’s more long form.”
In early July, he began a newsletter, featuring information about new releases as well as short book reviews.
“We love being a neighborhood spot. Of course, we want to draw people from all over, but you operate day-to-day and from a food service perspective by building based on repeat customers.”
He tries to be responsive to the interests of regular customers in purchasing books.
“We wanted newer, current books for issues that are important right here and right now, to the city and to the nation,” says Collins. “It’s a polarized time. We try to make sure we have books representative of different takes. The heartbeat of a city is a good place to do that.”
Books on race and gender, the “defining issues of our time,” will always be on the shelves. Indeed, fiction was their most popular subject until the death of George Floyd brought a demand for books on race and racism that “blew everything out of the water.”
This summer, Root & Press had a fundraiser to raise money for the Center for Racism Research.
“We started selling a lot of books on race because these authors already had these ideas in print,” he says. “We wanted to pay forward to the producers of that content and in the process the ideas behind it.”
They intend to begin an ongoing social injustice initiative in the store, “raising money and awareness for causes that align with our values.”
With the onset of the pandemic, Collins and Cote stopped serving food indoors but continued takeout until the end of April. At that point, they closed completely for a month to make some changes and decide upon a new approach. Book groups continued to meet, but online.
When they opened again, for book sales only, they placed orders for customers and hand-delivered the purchases. Like Bedlam Book Cafe, they also set up for online ordering from Bookshop.com.
“Bookshop really helped out; they provide the whole framework for independent businesses. For a place like us to do that alone, it’s really hard,” Collins says.
Moreover, the company adapted its policy to “give us basically what we would get (by selling) in the store. They bumped it up to as much as they could, at first through the end of June and now extended through December.”
When outdoor dining was allowed, he and Cote set up tables near the sidewalk and welcomed customers for modified hours; now, with restrictions somewhat relaxed, they have two tables inside. Given the size of the store, they’re uncomfortable with more than that.
Although they aren’t back to normal by any means, the crisis has “pushed us to avenues that we wouldn’t have had time or the urgency to seek,” says Collins. Those changes include outdoor seating as well as online ordering — for food as well as books.
The sale of children’s books has taken on added significance with the families coping with online learning as well as physical distancing.
“I’ve talked to a lot of parents who come in weekly; they’re trying to get ready to do homeschool this fall with their kids,” says Cote. “They ask, ‘Where should I start?’ That’s something people are doing a lot more, stuffing the house with books. A lot of kids ordinarily borrow the books from the school or from the classroom. Without that, that’s a big difference for them. And they don’t have the books they left in their desks.”
In addition, this summer she started Root & Press Schoolhouse on Instagram, posting activities and book suggestions to help keep kids engaged.
“It helped me get my teacher’s outlet in the summer,” says Cote.
With Root & Press, Bedlam Book Cafe and TidePool Bookshop in place, the city’s book scene is on its way.
“We talked with Nicole (DiCello) from Bedlam about trying to promote Worcester as a literary hub,” says Collins. “People from other areas can come here and go to three different bookshops. We always look for the local bookstores.”
372 Chandler St.
Proprietors: Jo and Huck Truesdell
This past March, Worcester natives Jo and Huck Truesdell had just finalized the initial order for TidePool Bookshop, their brand new bookstore, when “everything fell apart,” Jo Truesdell recalls. “Thank God we didn’t press ‘send.’”
The onset of the pandemic immediately put TidePool’s grand opening on hold. The Truesdells now faced the additional challenge of getting the word out to customers about a bookstore no one had yet been able to visit.
By mid-April, however, they were up and at it with online ordering, run through an interactive new website, and were soon delivering books to people’s doorsteps, “waving through our masks,” she says. Curbside pickup followed in early July as they continued to work inside, putting the finishing touches on the physical store.
In August, they were at last able to open the doors with the shelves stocked, welcoming customers inside on a restricted schedule: six afternoons a week or by appointment. They anticipate increasing those hours.
In the spring, the first online or phone book orders came either from people they knew or through “three degrees of separation,” she says. In short order, however, just as they were beginning to offer curbside, people began to find TidePool on their own.
“A young woman in her 30s who had ordered from us arrived on her scooter, at our doorstep; she was our first curbside pickup,” she says. “Someone else showed up who had been at Nu Cafe, looking up bookstores. He walked down the street and placed an order at the door.”
This was the age group they had imagined as their customers. Worcester has an “incredibly rich and exciting vibrant 30- to 40-year-old population … They need something like this,” she says. “They’re not reading on their Kindles. They want a real experience, and they want a community experience.”
In spite of the delays, she and Mr. Truesdell have remained optimistic and enthusiastic about the venture they began three years ago.
In 2017, they both retired, she from Bancroft School, where she had taught kindergarten for more than 30 years, and he from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, where he had specialized in land acquisition and the stewardship of wildlife habitat.
“The day after I retired from Bancroft, I said, ‘What’s next?’” Mrs. Truesdell says.
At the time, neither Root & Press nor Bedlam Bookshop had yet opened, and Worcester was lacking the bookstore scene it both needed and deserved.
“We decided to see if we could fill that gap,” she says.
Admitted novices, they started by asking questions. An informal brain trust included her brother, Jock Herron, and designer Ingrid Mach, who together with Ms. Mach’s husband, Dany Pelletier, own TidePool Press, which publishes nonfiction. Donald Reid, who owned the now-closed Ben Franklin Bookstore in downtown Worcester, was also an adviser.
An early decision was to adopt the TidePool name as well as its logo, a heron drawn by Mrs. Truesdell’s late father, architect John Herron, when he was 18. Then, for the next two years, the couple studied, sought funding and looked for an ideal location.
“We went to at least 65 bookstores, mostly in the Northeast,” Mrs. Truesdell says. “If we had time, we’d still be doing it. We learned something from every single bookstore.”
Reid sent them to consult with the pros; they contacted the New England Bookseller Association and began to attend their meetings. Through the educational resources of the American Booksellers Association, they learned about the Bookstore Training Group of Paz & Associates and attended a weeklong boot camp for new booksellers run by Paz.
Closer to home, the Center for Women and Enterprise as well as the Small Business Service Center, with a local office at Clark University, offered vital information and support.
“Finding the perfect spot has taken the most time,” she says. “We needed the trifecta: parking, easy accessibility, visibility. We saw some great places, but there was always something we would have to give up.”
“We were also looking for a particular ambiance,” her husband says. “Some sites had it, and some didn’t.”
They ultimately found a home at 372 Chandler St., in the brick building owned by Ignatius Chang, of Nancy Chang restaurant. The space not only ticked the requisite boxes, but also its previous occupant, Lincoln Stamp and Coin, had been the final iteration of Ephraim Books, a Worcester institution that once was New England’s largest bookstore.
Started in 1924 by Irving Ephraim, who first sold old coins, the business expanded to include books and collectible stamps until a fire in 1970 and the advent of chain bookstores ended the sale of books. Ephraim’s reopened with stamps and coins only, and son Robert Ephraim eventually brought the smaller business to the West Side as Lincoln Stamp and Coin. After he died, his brother, David, closed it last November.
In addition to the historical connection with books, the feel of the place exactly fit the Truesdells’ plans for their new store.
“We hoped for high ceilings, lots of wood, wooden floors,” says Mr. Truesdell. “We came here and we didn’t have to settle for anything: it has big windows, brick walls, nice timber posts.”
The 40-by-40-foot room was a “blank canvas,” he says. “We ordered shelves; we designed the space with an architect; we designed a layout for the shelves. We also had to make some adjustments to our plans to accommodate the space.”
From the start, he and his wife intended to hold events, considering them an essential way for TidePool Bookshop to contribute to the cultural life of the city. The store has the capacity for 50 people, which will allow them to welcome authors on the book tour circuit as well as local writers and academics. They envision a regular Friday evening event, perhaps with wine and cheese, where someone might read poetry or a short story or give a short talk.
In the past few months, TidePool, like Bedlam Book Cafe, has experimented with Zoom presentations, inaugurating their monthly event program, TidePool Together, in May with a talk about Preservation Worcester’s 50th anniversary by executive director Deborah Packard and former Worcester Art Museum director James Welu.
Fall author events will include Richard Dresser, speaking about his upcoming novel, “It Happened Here”; Ted Widmer on his recent work, “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington”; and Noah Keates on his debut novel, “Leviathan.”
“We have had people attending (online) events who would never attend otherwise,” Mrs. Truesdell says. “It’s been fun to see people coming back for these events. But it would be better to see them in person!”
The TidePool inventory of 11,000 books includes a full range of titles in fiction and nonfiction, though Mrs. Truesdell notes that “we have a whole lot of cookbooks. I did a lot of ordering when I was hungry!” They also highlight local authors, as well as books under the imprint of TidePool Press. Journals from Orange Arts in Woodstock, Connecticut, are an example of the specialty items they carry in addition to books.
“You want to provide things you can’t get everywhere,” she says. “It’s a dance: you have to have the books people expect to see, but you want them to have that adventure too, to have them discover something they didn’t expect.”
Going forward, the bookstore will highlight Worcester cultural events as well as exhibits or programs at the Worcester Historical Museum, the Worcester Art Museum and the American Antiquarian Society.
“We’re going to be doing table topics,” says Mrs. Truesdell. “We will have books for all ages on a certain topic that will change every month or so. Whenever we can connect that to something relevant to what’s going on in the city, we will.”
Especially close to her heart is the children’s section, accessible from the main reading area through a child-sized mousehole in the wall.
She cannot wait for story hours.
“A 3-year-old has come with her grandmother to pick up books, and it kills me not to be able to have her come in for story time,” she says. “Author talks and story time are such a big part of what we wanted to do that it’s weird to think we can’t do them, at least for a year.”
Meanwhile, she began live Zoom story hours in the early fall. The website also features video of her reading aloud “The Racketty-Packetty House” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, evidence of why her former kindergarteners, both young and old, still love “Mrs. T.”
The Truesdells are delighted that TidePool is a part of a new book world in Worcester.
“The more bookstores there are, the more the culture expands,” she says. “(The owners of Bedlam Bookshop and Root & Press) have been very kind to embrace us into the fold. With all of us working together, it can only benefit all of us.”