Porter Square Books provides a potential nirvana for some in community: writer-in-residence role
Porter Square Books will reinstate its writer-in-residence program in February, the store announced last week on Twitter.
The bookstore will select two writers – one youth- and one adult-focused – from an applicant pool to write articles for the store’s blog, interact with other authors, participate in store events and use store space to work on their own pieces, store owners said.
Writers-in-residence will get a 40 percent discount on store and cafe products, have access to the “Cambridge Edition” office at 25 White St. after 5 p.m. and on weekends (“a quiet space with flat surfaces,” is the only promise), a chance to contribute to staff recommendations and a launch party “if, ahem, I mean, when” a book is published. Writers will also gain access to a bookshelf full of galleys – not-yet-released books – to use for inspiration and see which publishers might be a good match.
“We are always looking for more ways to bring the resources and the world of books to our community,” said Josh Cook, co-owner and marketing director of Porter Square Books in Cambridge and a writer. “We have a very literary community – you can’t throw a rock without hitting a published writer in Cambridge – and there isn’t a lot that we can offer to the writers in our community, but this is one of those things. That was the goal, to try and bring some of the resources that the writers who’ve actually worked here have used and benefited from to the wider community.”
While Cambridge’s other independent bookstore, Harvard Book Store, doesn’t have a writers-in-residence program, Porter Square Books is not first with the idea. There are similar programs at shops such as Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, Bookshop Santa Cruz in California and Big Blue Marble Books in Philadelphia, Forbes reported.
Writers-in-residence go remote
The program began in 2019 with authors Kathryn Amato and Catherine Flora Con. The store was closed to in-person customers by the Covid pandemic in early 2020, giving writers Justin Chen and Sacha Lamb just a month before the program moved online. Even though the remainder of the 2020 residency was “diluted,” Chen said the experience was still helpful.
Writing is an isolated pursuit, and it was nice to be part of a community through the residency, said Chen, a self-described “scientist turned writer” who now works as director of external affairs for OpenBiome, a healthcare nonprofit in Porter Square. Since the program, Chen has had several personal essays published.
“As a writer, you want to write stuff that you’re happy with, whether it gets published or not. It’s really helpful to have some validation sometimes, to see that you’re on the right path or that others appreciate or empathize with your writing,” he said. “That was one of the most valuable things for me – just to have that kind of support to think, ‘Yeah, other people do see me as a writer, it’s not just all in my head.’ That was really helpful for me.”
Lamb, the 2020 writer-in-residence for young readers, also found her time in the residency valuable. In an email, Lamb – who expects publication of her debut novel, “When The Angels Left the Old Country,” in October – said she was happy the residency program is opening up again.
“It’s so valuable having a dedicated space to work in (and discounted drinks!),” she said. “I was very sorry to have my residency cut short by the pandemic, but I’m so glad [the store] came through thriving and able to offer that opportunity to other local writers.”
“You’re participating in the community”
Porter Square Books opened in 2004, surviving the threats of chains such as Barnes & Noble and the e-tailer Amazon that proved fatal to many other independent stores. Cook attributes it to the store’s commitment to the community and to providing experiences in addition to bookshelves. The store offers a variety of events and programs such as silent reading parties, author talks, a summer series of concerts and a fan fiction writing panel.
“We really try to be book-lovers who talk to people rather than people who sell books,” he said. “On our social media, we don’t have an official store voice – the people who are writing write in their voice. You’re always talking to a human when you’re talking to Porter Square Books.”
Cambridge, he said, “is also a place that is hungry for literature, hungry for books, and we have advantages that not every store has, being in such a literary, readerly place. I really think it’s that sense that you’re not just shopping when you’re here, you’re participating in the community.”
People of Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Watertown, Medford and Boston are invited to apply for the writer-in-residence program positions through July 31, with winners announced Oct. 27.