A reader's sanctuary weathers the pandemic

Warwick Beacon ·

As a family-owned small business, Mary’s Paperbacks is an oasis of calm on the busy hustle of West Shore Road for booklovers in Rhode Island. The small space, wedged between a hair salon and a diner, has allowed owner Tracey Doyle to offer a quiet sanctuary for readers since 1976.

“I was born in Connecticut, but I’ve been living in Warwick since I was 2,” said Doyle. “We would go to Connecticut to visit family, and there was this bookstore that we would pass that was very much like my business, and my mom always said she would like to open a store like it.”

Doyle’s mother, Mary Wenskowicz, was an avid reader and ran the bookshop until her passing in 2003, when Doyle took over. The store was originally on Buttonwoods Avenue and moved to West Shore Road four years ago. The bookshop looks out toward Doyle’s former high school, Warwick Veterans Memorial, now a middle school.

But the store’s warm atmosphere was taken away from patrons, and Doyle herself, when the pandemic hit, forcing the bookshop to close for just over a month. But she did not have to shut her doors permanently, thanks to Rhode Island’s rollout of small business unemployment assistance, as well as devoted customers who kept buying everything from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to Stephen King’s “Pet Cemetery.”

“We were closed for about a month and a half,” said Doyle. “We closed the last day in March, and we reopened on May 11.”

Unlike other small businesses that relied on alternate methods of purchasing to keep open - curbside pick-up, home delivery, and online orders - these options weren’t available to Mary’s, which does not even have a computer.

In addition, the store’s inventory relies on donations of used books. Her inventory changes rapidly, so a catalog is not available online. Curbside pick-up was difficult.

“I had a few people who would call and see if we had something, and if I had it, I would get it together for them, but with not having anything online it was hard,” said Doyle, whose son helps out in the shop.

One of the things that Doyle credits to saving her business was the unemployment assistance offered to self-employed small business owners by the state.

“Usually, unemployment isn’t available for self-employed people, but because it was a mandatory shutdown due to nothing wrong on our part and it was unavoidable, it was included in the unemployment plan,” said Doyle. “It was an entirely different process than regular self-employment. But it was announced that online applications would be up on April 8 at 8 a.m., so I set my alarm and got up and filled it out first thing in the morning. But then it was two weeks until I heard anything back and, in the meantime, you don’t have income. That’s scary. We depend on cash flow to pay bills, so it was scary.”

But even so, Doyle says sales were only down 7 percent last year, thanks to her loyal customers.

Doyle says that when her shop reopened in May sales were still quite low because many of her regular customers are over the age of 60 and didn’t feel comfortable going out, even after businesses reopened. Eventually, they started to venture out slowly, visiting her store to find books to keep them company during quarantine.

Courtney Howe, a University of Rhode Island 2019 graduate and frequent customer of Mary’s, is one of the many readers who helped keep the business open.

“I’ve been going to Mary’s ever since my grandmother took me as a little girl,” said Howe. “I’ve been making an effort to shop at Mary’s to help the business.”

Doyle hopes to get her sales back up to normal this year but is grateful that her mother’s dream and her beloved business were able to pull through in such perilous times. She learned how neighbors - and booklovers - can come together to support small businesses that are truly important in the community.

Liz Fusco is a Junior at URI (class of 2022) from North Kingstown majoring in English and Journalism. She hopes to work in print journalism or for a publishing company.