Author's 'An Unlikely Story' bookstore a likely success

Author's 'An Unlikely Story' bookstore a likely success

Owner Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, envisioned bringing back the charm of the front porch of historic Falk's Market in Plainville, Mass., when An Unlikely Story was being built. Pictured here is the completed storefront, composed of chairs and tables for reading, which is part of Kinney's efforts to gather the community together. (Valley Breeze photos by Brittany Ballantyne)

PLAINVILLE, Mass. - A page turns as a new chapter begins for this Plainville landmark after the author of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" book series, Jeff Kinney, opens An Unlikely Story bookstore on a historical piece of land dear to many in the area.

On May 29, An Unlikely Story opened its doors on its kickoff weekend, and drew in well over 1,000 people, but prior to the store's launch date, Kinney and his wife, Julie Kinney, took a few history lessons with the Plainville Historical Commission. The two had moved to Plainville after mapping out a center "stomping ground" between Boston, Providence and Worcester, where Julie Kinney's family lived, and decided the Massachusetts town was a good spot to raise a family.

It was with the society's help that the Kinneys were able to research the history of the building Falk's Market once resided in - a quintessential landmark that stood where An Unlikely Story is today, dating back to the mid 1800s.

Shaelyn Germain, the events coordinator at the store, explained that the couple "wanted it to be similar in mission to what the old general store was - which was a community gathering space for people to come together, meet one another, have shared experiences, have new experiences - and they realized that a bookstore is really kind of a nice location and business model for doing that."

The area where An Unlikely Story is nestled at 111 South St. was the home to a variety of businesses over the years, including a pharmacy and the general store, but the structure had been deteriorating after nearly 150 years and was unable to be saved.

General Manager Deb Sundin said with the assistance of the historical commission, old photos were used in attempts to replicate what the downtown property looked like in its earlier years. A symbolic front porch was recreated during the new building's construction. "That was a big deal when Falk's (Market) was around - everyone would watch the parades from there, everyone would sort of gather on that front porch," Sundin said.

Though the previous framework was leveled, a few pieces of the previous store were salvaged, including old wooden produce boxes that are now used as book bins and one of the original store signs that hung at Falk's Market. Providence Painted Signs also worked with the Kinney's to study and recreate a plethora of older Plainville business signs.

Germain said since the store opened for operation, she enjoys, "hearing people's stories of what they remember this being, and remembering if they had either been to the market and been long-time supporters of that business, or if they just remember it from driving by ... the iconic cornerstone of Plainville."

Customers who walk into the store step across wooden floors from the old Nutty Buddy ice-cream cone factory in Dorchestor, Mass., and the beams that make up the ceiling visitors see is from an old warehouse in Providence.

Germain said An Unlikely Story is hoping to become qualified for the "gold standard" by Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) with one of the highest ratings possible for an energy efficient building, and one of the components of the certification is how well a company uses local goods and materials.

"There's been a lot of emphasis on supporting your local business - whether that's a bookstore, or whether that's a hardware store, (or) it's a gift shop, and I think people are coming to understand that if you don't support the local businesses, they can't survive. Those are the anchors of your downtown," Sundin said.

Cafe items such as teas and chocolates that are served come from Equal Exchange, coffee brewed in the shop is from New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket, and salads and greens are delivered from local Massachusetts farmers. Sundin said An Unlikely Story is also seeking a partnership with a close-by bakery to specifically bring in gluten-free items.

Though An Unlikely Story aims to keep relationships with nearby companies strong, the store has brought in crowds of customers from a variety of places - the furthest away being Dublin, Ireland. According to Germain, a family had added the shop to their list of places to go while visiting Cape Cod before their departure back home via Logan International Airport in Boston, and even fit in time to participate at the store's first cartooning workshop.

Both Germain and Sundin said the amount of attendance for each program held at An Unlikely Story so far has surpassed their expectations and has diversified the shop. Germain said, "I work with everybody from the (Jeff Kinney's) publicist to the grandmothers who are here for events, to the babies crying in the back, and it's a lot of logistics to plan an event, but also, when you see it come to fruition and see people enjoying it, that's what makes it all worth it."

Currently held at An Unlikely Story are computer workshops, cartooning workshops and weekly storytimes, which have brought in various generations, repeat customers and even served as date nights for some.

One particular guest speaker was Esther MacNeill Friend, who wrote a book about growing up in Plainville during the Great Depression and had a crowd of about 70 people come to listen to her just two weeks before she passed away this summer. The author spoke of her work and answered questions about her book, "Living Happily ... in the Great Depression and Beyond." Sundin said all who attended, and put together the question and answer session, were lucky to hear Friend speak, feel a "generational connection," and reminisce.

Germain explained that the An Unlikely Story team is working on bringing more writers to the Plainville location because "a bookstore is not successful without the authors who create the book," and providing both authors and readers a time and place to discuss these works can be rewarding for both parties.

"For a child or a parent to meet the author or illustrator who's responsible for getting them to read, or getting their kids to read, is a really rewarding experience," Germain said, and pointed out that writers get the pleasure of meeting their fans and hearing feedback from them.

She said, "Part of the mission of what Jeff wanted in creating this building was to provide unique opportunities that wouldn't be in this area without it."

It is the Kinneys' hope, as well as the staff's, that the business will ignite a spark of rebirth for the town and the surrounding areas, and Sundin said the shop is doing just that.

"It's a huge addition to the town," she said, "and we hear a lot from people who grew up in the town who used to come to Falk's Market that used to buy penny candy when they were kids, how much they enjoy coming here now, and it does bring back a lot of good memories for people."

For Germain, "The biggest takeaway ... is that it has been such a huge heart project for Jeff and his wife Julie and I hope - and I personally think - that it does convey just in walking through the door how much attention to detail and how much love and heart went into the creation of this space," she said.

Sundin said that for Jeff and Julie Kinney to work through this project from the very first murmurs of opening a bookstore to seeing the company come alive shows their dedication, and to "provide a venue and want to give back to the community in this way is pretty amazing. They both have pretty generous hearts. There's no question about it."

Asked what Sundin has learned since she first began working at the downtown location, she said, with a smile on her face, "To always expect that the most unlikely thing will happen."

Above, Norwood, Mass., resident Nicholas Orgel, 15, left, and 25-year-old Kyle Taylor of Attleboro, Mass., sit and relax in the store's cafe, which offers local goods such as New Harvest coffee from Pawtucket, R.I.
Jeff Kinney
During their first time visiting the bookstore, Susie Deana, right, and her daughter, 8-year-old Danielle Fligor of Mansfield, Mass, sit together and flip through a book in the children's section. This area is composed of vibrant colors and Harry Potter-themed decor, with hanging brooms and "flying" books dangling from the ceiling.

Comments

Wish we could have something like that in Pawtucket. But the culture is not there. Pawtucket likes kids baseball, basketball and McDonald's. Learning is not our bag.

Bigron, the lack of bookstores in the state is probably related to the state's fire code which applies the same safety criteria to bookstores, churches, libraries and coffee houses as it does to nightclubs, bars and medical marijuana "clubs."