Riffraff is Providence, Rhode Island’s newest literary haunt, a relaxed, open space where patrons can choose between a popular cookbook and the newest Indonesian novel translated into English, then settle down with a themed drink to dive into its pages. The establishment is owned by translator Emma Ramadan and former editor, publicist, and publisher Tom Roberge, and the duo’s literary backgrounds permeate Riffraff’s stock to create a heartfelt, unique selection of both international and domestic literary voices that are sure to spark conversation and cultivate community—like as not, over a pint.
We recently spoke with Emma Ramadan about the rebellious underpinnings of Riffraff’s name, the timely themes of their book club, and where they see the bookstore headed in the future.
Riffraff is a fairly new establishment, but has enjoyed quite a bit of popularity— congratulations! How have you seen the bookstore evolve since your initial conception of it, and where do you see it headed in the future?
Every day we’re learning a little bit more about our customers and what kind of books they’re interested in, what kind of drinks they’re interested in, how people move between the bookstore and the bar, what kind of events work and which don’t. One thing we’ve learned so far is that we don’t necessarily need the bestsellers or the literary darlings—we’re not in New York City, we’re in Providence, and “literary hype” isn’t a thing here the way it is in bigger cities, so in our small store where tight curation is super important, we’ve learned we can do away with the books we’re not as passionate about, and leave more room for the small press books and other hidden gems we’re excited to hand-sell to customers. On the other hand, we’ve brought in cook books and a lot of nonfiction about animals—who knew those would be such popular categories for us?
Tell me a little bit about the name Riffraff. It’s not a literary reference, per se—where did it come from?
We knew we wanted a name that could apply to both a bookstore and a bar, and would show a bit of our store’s personality. Then Tom read the word “riffraff” in the Semiotext(e) book To Our Friends by The Invisible Committee, a book about forms of radical resistance. In a passage about the protests that took place following the Greek financial crisis is this quote: “At a certain point the forces of order withdrew, after running out of teargas grenades. Impossible to say who took over the streets then. They say it was the ‘600 euros generation,’ the ‘high schoolers,’ the ‘anarchists,’ the ‘riffraff’ from the Albanian immigration, they’ll say anything. As usual, the press blamed the ‘koukoulofori,’ the ‘hooded ones.’ The truth is that the anarchists were overrun by this faceless outpouring of rage. Their monopoly on wild, masked action, inspired tags, and even Molotov cocktails had been taken from them unceremoniously. The general uprising they no longer dared to imagine was there, but it didn’t resemble the idea of it they had in their minds. An unknown entity, an egregore, had been born, a spirit that wouldn’t be appeased till everything was reduced to cinders that deserved to be. Time was on fire. The present was fractured as payment for all the future that had been stolen from us.” Our personal politics are very aligned with this sentiment. And we liked the idea of reclaiming a word that has historically been used pejoratively. And most importantly, it helps to give customers an idea before they walk in the door of the kind of bookstore we are—a place more likely to sell books about overthrowing the government than books about knitting, for example.
The store is co-owned by the two of you (Emma and Tom). How have your diverse backgrounds in publishing and specifically in translating manifested in both Riffraff’s cultural aesthetic and the books you sell in your collection?
Riffraff’s specialty is books from small, independent presses, literary fiction, and books in translation, all of which is certainly informed by our backgrounds in publishing and translation. I would venture to say that, despite our small size, we sell more books in translation than any other store in Rhode Island, and we’re very proud of that. People walk into our store and they can tell we’re not like the other bookstores in the area.You might not recognize most of the books on display. If you walk in the door and ask for a love story, I’m probably going to put Marguerite Duras in your hands. If you ask for science fiction, I’m going to hand you science fiction by a woman of color or by a Cuban writer in translation. If you want to walk out the door with a book hand chosen for you that you would never have picked up otherwise, we’re the place for that.
On your website you say you moved to Providence specifically to open a bookstore-bar. What about Providence’s literary scene made you decide to settle in?
Providence does have a vibrant community of writers and artists and the universities bring with them a lot of engaged students and faculty, but it was less about Providence’s literary scene and more about Providence’s small business scene that we chose to open Riffraff here. Because Providence isn’t an insanely expensive place to live, there’s a thriving local business community where people can afford to take a chance on fulfilling their dreams, doing what they love. It’s a beautiful thing, and people around here really support small businesses. We also love Providence as a city to live in generally (great music scene, great food scene, near the ocean), and when we were looking to move, Providence was a place we could see ourselves living long term, which was important. And, most importantly, there are no other bookstores selling the kind of books we sell, no other spaces quite like Riffraff, so we felt there was a space for us to fill a niche.
What motivated you to create a combination bookstore-bar? Was it a purely financial decision, or do you believe the pairing has a deeper impact? How do your customers interact with both the drinking establishment and the bookstore?
Pairing a low margin business with a high margin business is a great way to ensure the sustainability of an independent bookstore right now. But taking inspiration from other bookstore bars like Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, NY or The Wild Detectives in Dallas, TX showed us the way a community can form around a bookstore bar in a way that isn’t always possible with a bookstore or with a bookstore café, for example. Being open at night, having the space and environment for literary events, allows for a bookstore to be a community hub, where people can gather and exchange ideas in a low-pressure, warm environment. As opposed to the coffee shop model where people are often glued to their laptops, bars are for socializing. And what’s nice about having both is we get a lot of different kinds of customers. We have customers who come for the books and then decide to stay for a drink; we have customers who head straight for the bar but then wind up browsing the books with a drink in their hands and walking out the door with a whole stack. People who were browsing solo one day come back for an event and make a new friend. People who don’t consider themselves readers see something that catches their eye and then come back for another book the next week. Combining the two spaces encourages people to step outside of their comfort zones, and also challenges us as booksellers and curators to make sure everyone feels included, represented, not intimidated, to make sure the casual browser with drink in hand can find something they connect with just as easily as the grad student on the hunt for obscure literature in translation.
Your events page is peppered with incredible names from all over the world, including Michael Palin, Natalie Shapero, and Brazilian author Beatriz Bracher. Tell me a little bit about how you plan events, and other ways you promote internationalism in your store.
In terms of promoting internationalism, our taste skews towards books in translation already, so the books we put on display and make our staff picks are wildly international naturally. But we do make a conscious effort to make sure we have as diverse an array as possible, not just European writers in translation, for example. For our events, we try to bring in authors who we think our customers will connect to, and also authors who can bring a new perspective to a conversation. In the same way as we strive for our shelves to be represent different voices and push the boundaries, we aim to do the same with our events. We’re very fortunate also to be in a city with a lot of talented local authors who come to us with ideas for events (such as the Natalie Shapero event, for which she’ll be reading alongside the Rhode Island poet laureate Tina Cane).
We’re also very fortunate to have other local businesses we can partner with for events. We’re the booksellers for the Michael Palin event which is taking place at the Columbus Theatre, a music venue in our neighborhood. Having them near us allows us to co-host events for authors that we wouldn’t be able to accommodate otherwise in our small space.
Your inaugural Book Club theme is “Capitalism + The Individual.” Why this theme, and why now?
Last spring we had two book clubs—fiction and nonfiction—and we found the divide a bit limiting. We wanted to try this fall to have one book club that would bring together multiple genres, but felt we needed some kind of encompassing theme. The way capitalism affects our lives is something that feels especially relevant now as we see those in power making catastrophic decisions for the rest of us for their own monetary benefit. We as individuals are left grappling with how to be in a world where sometimes it seems we are nothing more than targets for advertisers, or pawns in someone else’s game. It’s also a theme that is far-reaching enough to spread through fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Our book club is another aspect of the store that’s still evolving, we’re still figuring out what our regular attendees find most valuable, while still staying true to what our mission is, which is to be a store that sells and engages with books that are an inclusive representation of our current reality and that make it a tiny bit easier to survive in it.
Finally, what are people buying right now, and what are some titles you think people should be buying more of?
Some of our most popular sellers this month have been Severance by Ling Ma, The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon, and I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. Some of our bestsellers since opening are There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, Baboon by Naija Marie Aidt, Sphinx by Anne Garréta, Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby.
One thing we’ve learned very quickly is that our customers generally shy away from buying hardcover fiction books. Yes, they seem expensive by comparison to paperbacks, but I think this is a sad sign of the way books have been devalued by discount retailers. A $27 book that might take you 12 hours to read is the price of 2 movies that will provide you with less than half the entertainment time. It’s the price of a local theater performance. It’s the price of a dinner. It’s less than the cost of 2 paperback books. A lot of people wouldn’t bat an eye spending $27 on a few drinks, but suddenly the idea of spending that much on a book you’ll own forever and derive hours and hours of enjoyment from is a turn off to people. Books cost what they do because the talent and effort and labor of many hardworking people has gone into them. Books have value. Books warrant the $27 just as much as movies or cocktails, and I wish I saw more people’s buying habits reflect that.