Don’t know what book to read next? Go to Twenty Stories. They love giving recommendations!
Alexa Trembly and Emery Haskins are writers and they love talking to people. They’re the owners of Twenty Stories, that book van you’ve seen around town. Alexa and Emery want to get to know you and suggest a book that might be perfect or might open your mind to something you’ve never read before. They curate twenty books each month – fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. They first started as a bookmobile (above), and just opened a brick and mortar in Pawtucket. Check out their website here. I got to interview them earlier this month and had such a great time. Check it out below!
1.Tell me more about Twenty Stories. What’s special about it to you?
Emery: I love how small it is, how personal it is. Each person we interact with, we can actually talk to. We talk to every single person that comes into the store. Everyone’s greeted right away. People ask about our concept right away and it’s easy to connect with our audience. Sometimes, I think we don’t even own a store, sometimes it feels like we own a meeting space.
Alexa: We’re trying to change how bookstores work, specifically the curation and recommendation process. Bookstores have been approaching the field for the same way for so long. People are trying to be innovative, finding a space within that. We fit into that group.
2. Why did you start it?
Emery: We wanted to meet people who are like minded, writers and thinkers. It’s a good way to draw people to us. In LA especially, it was such a big city and it was hard to find those people, because it’s so film-centric. There were not a lot of literary writers. So, we were trying to find people. To find those people, we started a bookstore that we could bring anywhere.
Alexa: Like insect lights that draw people in.
3. What were you doing before starting the book van?
Emery: We met at school, at the Pratt institute in Brooklyn. We both have BFA’s in writing/fiction. This ties into our whole connection to books. We came to it from a writing standpoint first, not a bookstore standpoint first. It influences our selection of books a lot. We moved to LA after school, got jobs unrelated to writing, and were so uninspired. We quit those jobs and went abroad to Lisbon. We were ready to reset.
Alexa: We were always writing at the same time. I write short stories mostly, mostly fiction. And we’re trying to send it out to lit magazines. We’re also applying to grad school right now. It’s a balancing act.
Alexa: Early on, every month, we were publishing a writer’s work. We want to create a space where art is coming out of it too. We work with them to edit their writing, then post it on our blog. It’s hard for people to begin when you didn’t go to a school for writing. People ask us questions a lot. We want the store to be a place for writers to meet. We want to start doing writers workshops and make Twenty Stories a place for writers to read their work via open mic nights.
4. How did you decide on a mobile bookstore? How did you decide on the color of the van?
Emery: We drew inspiration from the food struck scene in LA. There’s also a history of bookmobiles run out of libraries and community centers. Also, it was the easiest thing to open, price-wise.
Alexa: Our biggest costs are books and repairs. At the beginning, we had a lot of repairs to make on the van. We had to keep jump-start the van multiple times. We used to always use Alexa’s car and once, Alexa’s car started on fire. We called LA Fire Department but by the time they came, the fire extinguished itself. We were like, “are we going to die right now?” It was 5 AM. We’ve had lots of issues starting up (laughs), but now it’s great and way easier.
Emery: When you don’t know anything about a business, there are so many unanswered questions, like where do I buy books wholesale? There’s so much learning. We googled a lot of stuff. Asked a lot of people advice.
Alexa: As it goes on longer, you feel the wear and tear in different ways. It’s hard not having financial stability. But it’s worth it to not be not told what you have to do everyday.
Emery: Ya, I think it’s the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. It’s really fulfilling. Its’ great not having a boss, but it’s difficult not knowing where income is coming from. You’re relying on others and yourself to buy/sell product, which is just scary sometimes.
5. How did you decide to move to Providence?
Emery: I grew up here, born and raised. We met in New York City. We knew we wanted to come back here. We didn’t like LA. We did a week in Austin, and we were super close to signing a lease there. We love Austin, but it would have been tougher for the mobile van. We like the idea of moving to a new spot every day, which we might not have been able to do in Austin. We also wanted to re-center before applying to grad school.
6. Enjoying books and starting a mobile bookstore are different things. What drew you to bookstore ownership?
Emery: We never planned on owning a bookstore. We don’t feel like bookstore owners. We liked the experience component of the bookmobile. Opening a store was logistical. It’s nice though because it allows us to create event spaces and community building. People will say, “You’re the book people” and I guess we are. But really, we write and read and just want others to write and read.
Alexa: Bookstore owner implies a sense of entrepreneurship. As we’ve had the bookstore longer, we’ve had to step into that role, but that wasn’t our plan. I’ve enjoyed the fun strategic thinking though.
7. What are some of the challenges you face?
Emery: In LA, the hardest thing was finding the demographic and parking in the right places. In Providence, there are more people here that seem interested in books. Small business in PVD is bigger. Getting people to your store is always a challenge. Putting on a fun event and making people show up is challenging. We figure everything out by trial-and-error.
Alexa: Getting a concept across to people can be tough. Curation is not as obvious in a bookstore. At first, we were afraid people weren’t going to get it. Portraying curation aspect and that there is enough there for everyone.
Emery: Actually, it’s kind of like a restaurant. We have a limited menu, and it’s seasonal. We’re a restaurant that sells books and changes our menu. We want to be a place where what you get is good.
8. Biggest surprise?
Emery: It’s been hard to explain to older people why there aren’t books on the wall. There’s something so millennial about the idea.
Alexa: I think the biggest surprise for me has been getting repeat customers. It just makes me so happy. We’re in Pawtucket, we’re a small store in a building. It’s harder to find us. Someone came in and said he was taking a trip to Ireland. He said, “I want a recommendation.” And that’s what we like to do. People believe in the books that we’re reading and they like knowing that it was selected for them. We love talking to you about your books and giving you new perspectives that you might not read otherwise. We are just so grateful that people are buying books, and that we’re getting books into more people’s hands.
9. What’s your philosophy on picking books? What’s the method? Where do you source from?
Emery: We have an ongoing list. We do a lot of research. We obviously follow longlist/short list. We follow Lambda, the LGBTQ award. We like new, debut books. We watch out for emerging writers. We like to support people’s first books. Diversity is huge. We like cultivating an international range of authors. Twenty books feels limiting but in another way, it’s so expansive. No one reads twenty books in a month, so you’ll find something for you no matter what.
Alexa: We have 40-50 books to start when we’re prepping the next month’s books. Then, we narrow it down to 20. We might still pull things off the list of 20, because we feel we should find something else that should be represented. We might save one for another time or another month. We have their eye on little publishers too. Small presses that publish 3-4 books/year are more tucked away. We try to know when something is coming out and see if it fits. We do a lot of research. We also try to put our own taste aside and try to have something for anyone. We have a lot of books that we actually wouldn’t normally read. It’s a good way to expand people’s horizons and expose all of us to a lot of new voices.
10. You guys talk to so many people about their book preferences. Have you learned anything interesting?
Emery: People are really willing to try something new. We find people that are on a pattern of reading books that they would not have read themselves. We also find people who hadn’t been reading in a while, and now they’re big readers again. I think there’s something to the human connection. People want a larger connection to the book and we’re able to provide that by suggesting the book.
Alexa: Non-fiction has also been a big point. Same with poetry. So many people don’t want to read fiction. Non-fiction is a huge pattern. People like to learn something, with fiction and non-fiction. People want to learn.
11. Are you seeing any fun trends in the book industry? Any predictions for the future of bookselling?
Emery: It’s a big moment for women writers and writers of color. B/c of where we’re at, with Trump in office, a lot of publishing wants other stories to be told.
Alexa: We’ve also seen this new genre called auto-fiction, which is kind of a blend of autobiography (like real text messages) and fictionalizing other aspects. I think it’s emerging because of social media. There are more personal narratives out there. It also used to be taboo to have more than one person narrating, and we’re seeing that standard broken more and more.
12. In med school, we read a lot of nonfiction. Do you have any advice for finding time / mental space to read when you’re in school?
Emery: I feel like there’s no good advice for this. Reading before bed, blocking out chunks of your day helps. Always keeping a book in your bag because you might not know when you’ll have time to read. Appointments are great for that.
Alexa: A book should be another accessory. You can always have it on you – you might be waiting and wish you had one on you.
1. Favorite book
Alexa: Delicious Foods by James H
Emery: We need new names – NoViolet Bulawayo
2. Favorite author
Alexa: Mary Gaitskill
Emery: Shawn Vestal
3. Favorite PVD restaurant
Alexa: Garden Grill
Emery: Bywater in Warren
4. Favorite spot to grab drinks
Alexa: Saint Monday’s
Emery: The Avery
5. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Alexa: Writer or a social worker
Emery: I wanted to be Free. (laughs) I guess I wanted to either be a writer or to make things.
6. Least favorite word / word that grosses you out?
Alexa: Adverbs, like “quickly”
Emery: Started, starting, start. Because you don’t start something in real life, you just do something. You don’t say, “I started to pick up my phone,” you just do it.
7. Favorite song / Guilty pleasure
Alexa: When You Love Somebody by Abraham Mateo
Emery: Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett & Flaming Lips/Pixies (Hey)
8. Favorite med student?
Alexa and Emery: Neil!
Check out their website here!
Neil Kondamuri, MD’22, is a first year med student who loves exploring PVD.