JULY 11, 2019
RIFFRAFF, A BOOKSTORE, COFFEE SHOP, and bar in Providence, Rhode Island, is co-owned by Tom Roberge and Emma Ramadan. Since the bookstore’s opening in December 2017, Roberge and Ramadan have curated their books with uncommon specificity and intention. They carry certain popular titles but also fill the tables and shelves with books by writers you’ve never heard of — books with beautiful covers, from independent presses, often in translation. Nationwide in 2018, the top-selling books included the Christian self-help manifesto Girl, Wash Your Face and the 13th book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Riffraff doesn’t sell these.
I am eating bagels with cream cheese from Rebelle with Roberge and Ramadan at their home in West Providence. It is Sunday, one of their days off from Riffraff, and that means they turn their attention to other projects. They are both French literary translators and recently published their co-translation of The Boy by Marcus Malte with Restless Books. Not long ago, Ramadan finished co-translating Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras for the feminist press Dorothy, and now she is working on her third Anne Garréta book for Deep Vellum. Roberge is also on a judging panel for the Fondation Jan Michalski for writer and translator residencies in Switzerland and regularly co-hosts the translated literature podcast Three Percent with Chad Post. There’s an international sensibility to what Roberge and Ramadan do that begins in French but quickly swells.
In 2015, Roberge was working as the deputy director of Albertine, the French Embassy’s bookstore in New York City. He read and admired Sphinx, the first book Ramadan translated by Garréta, member of the French experimental literary group Oulipo. He wrote to tell her he liked it and said she should stop by Albertine sometime. When she got back from a Fulbright in Morocco, she did. Roberge walked her around the store and chose books for her to buy: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc, King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes. Ramadan says, “We were pretty much together from that day on.”
In college, Ramadan had gone to Brown, where she studied comparative literature. When she got back from her junior year abroad in Paris, she decided she wanted to focus on translation and then spent a summer interning in New York with Jill Schoolman at Archipelago Books, a press devoted exclusively to literature in translation. “Seeing the way Jill ran everything — her influence, her taste, her curation — was earth-shattering for me,” Ramadan says. That summer, going to literary events and meeting people, Ramadan saw the community that supported literary translation — the force of readers, translators, publishers, and booksellers that were getting international literature onto bookstore shelves.
Roberge was a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar after college. After that, he was living in New York City, realizing he didn’t like many of the titles that were being reviewed in The New York Times. Then he read a slim one-column review of a book by Michel Houellebecq and went down to the bookstore to order it. He got it, read it in one sitting, and realized that this was the kind of literature he liked. He figured out a way to find weird books; it took little more than walking into bookstores, bypassing the front tables, and just pulling out books he’d never heard of that looked vaguely interesting. “I discovered really good things that way,” Roberge says.
Roberge started working in publishing and bookstores at the same time. He was the managing editor of the literary magazine A Public Space, alongside former Paris Review editor Brigid Hughes. “When you edit a magazine, you’re rejecting 90 percent of what comes across the transom,” Roberge says of watching Hughes select work for each issue. “It’s frustrating to feel like you’re saying, ‘No,’ constantly, but what you’re doing is curating.” Meanwhile, he also worked with bookstore owner and bookseller Sarah McNally at McNally Jackson. “She chose what was in that store,” Roberge says. “When it opened, she was handselling books. She didn’t necessarily know in the early days what was going to work, but she just went with her gut and went with her tastes.”
At Riffraff, too, Ramadan and Roberge trust their personal instincts, tweaking their stock to respond to the community but still staying true to their preferences. Roberge says that the bookstore representatives from major big-house publishers are very good at selling books. They say, This is going to be the big book from the big writer on this big topic this year. But Roberge explains that, more and more, he and Ramadan think, Yeah, maybe. We’ll just see how it does. “And if we don’t carry that book,” Roberge says, “most of our customers have no idea that we didn’t choose to carry it. There’s no accidental book coverage that most people are encountering on a daily basis.”
Roberge says that when There There by Tommy Orange was only a hardcover, before it was a fiction finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, everyone in the book world was already talking about it. Everyone had something to say about it. He asks Ramadan, “Did we ever have a single customer coming in asking for it?” And she responds, “Well, we had it.” But it was a slow burn before the award attention and paperback version. Roberge says, “We had it, but I feel like if we didn’t, I’m not sure anyone would have noticed.”
They say that some of this has to do with being outside of New York City and Boston or any place where the literary hype machine is loud. But they are increasingly confident in trusting their instincts. “We have evidence that when we buy the things we don’t care about, our customers don’t care about them either,” Ramadan says. She says their taste is less about small presses and translation than it is simply about good books. “If somebody comes in and they want a romance, I can sell them something from a small press that’s a romance. You could insert a ton of small or translation press books into any bookstore and people would find them and love them.” Ramadan says booksellers can trust that customers will like a good book regardless of the publicity — or lack thereof — surrounding it.
One pronounced quality of Riffraff is its profuse stock of beautiful paperbacks in the $13–$18 range. Roberge points out that hardcovers are expensive and that Providence isn’t the wealthiest city in America. Ramadan says, “It’s really hard to get a customer to take a $30 chance on a book. It’s so much easier for me to say this is a weird little book and it’s $12.95. That’s easy.” She says she’s excited about books like The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang, Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib, and Milkman by Anna Burns, all of which came out in paperback. “I hope that’s a trend that continues. We have the best time selling those books.”
Ramadan says they also end up with a lot of book requests at Riffraff, and then those books become part of their stock. They now have a cookbook section, because people were asking for them. They have more books about nature and witchcraft and crystals. If their customers want those things, Ramadan says, why deny them? “Our customers are learning to trust us more too,” Ramadan says. “Before it would have been hard for us to sell a whole stack of Open Letter books, but now we’re selling a lot of copies of Flowers of Mold.”
Regardless of whether you go to Riffraff looking for any particular thing, you’ll very likely walk out with some new discovery. Customers pick up books simply because of staff recommendations, attractive covers, and weird premises. Riffraff’s best-selling titles include the novel Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman; the short story collection Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from Danish by Denise Newman; and the novella set The Last Wolf & Herman by László Krasznahorkai, translated from Hungarian by John Batki and George Szirtes. Recently, they have been selling a lot of copies of Paradise Rot by the Norwegian singer Jenny Hval, translated by Marjam Idriss.
Roberge says that part of what makes this level of curation possible is that, in the past 20 years, distribution for small presses has improved dramatically. Bookstores can now order small press titles quickly and easily, in as limited a number as they wish. Of course, Roberge notes, bookstores have been selling books in the same way for generations, and they are slow to adjust. But they have been forced to do just that in order to survive. Since Amazon took hold, most bookstores have had to either focus on mystery or romance or whatever the hot new political books are, and really make sure they have enough of those, or bring in “sidelines” — notebooks, socks, magnets, candles. That’s why Riffraff has a bar. “It created a communal space where people enjoy hanging out, but it also really helps pay the bills,” Roberge says. “Twenty years ago, you could just be a bookstore and just be downtown and get by as long as you had a little bit of everything. Now it’s very uncommon for a new bookstore to open and just sell books.”
A year and a half in, Riffraff has six employees and the business is turning a profit month to month. I mention their commitment to fair wages, and Roberge and Ramadan say this was fundamental to their business model from the very beginning — they were committed to it and built their budget around it. Roberge says though they are still paying back some loans, everything is on track in terms of growth and sales. A bustling bookstore/bar is a triumph; it’s also a great deal of work, which includes emceeing several literary events a week, hosting Democratic Socialist meetings and birthday parties, and maintaining a lovely garden space out front. “You can’t relax, let’s put it that way,” Roberge says.
Roberge says that the driving idea behind the bookstore is simply to put everything out and let this signal that they think it’s good. “Don’t try to tell people that it’s the greatest book of all time and super literary because of x, y, and z — just cut to what people want: to buy something they’re going to like. By putting it all together, and by saying this is as important as that other thing you’re familiar with, just that physical…”
“Proximity,” Ramadan says.
“Proximity, exactly. By putting something next to Haruki Murakami, it naturally boosts that other thing. We’ve decided to put everything front and center and treat it equally,” Roberge says. “We’re just pulling out that weird stuff we like and shining a light on it.”