Book Wake

Following good stories wherever they lead

Book Trails: Providence Athenaeum

I love visiting book havens when I travel — bookstores, libraries, and the like — so I’ll start sharing a few impressions from the road. If you’ve been here too, feel free to add your own stories in the comments!


For our anniversary celebration, my fiance and I decided to hie away to Providence, RI, city of culinary magic and impressive architecture. One of the places I enjoyed the most was the Providence Athenaeum, a beautiful membership library founded in 1836 .

Having done little to no research (my fiance wanted a “spur of the moment” flavor to the trip), I was surprised to discover that the Athenaeum was within spitting distance of Brown University’s campus.

In fact, it was in a hilly, brick-and-cobblestone section of the city that reminded me of Boston’s Beacon Hill area. We spent a few challenging minutes finding a parking spot, and then walked back down the streets to the Athenaeum. Despite the evening chill, I had to pause and marvel at the buildings around us in several places — not to mention, take some pictures.

Athenaeum front

Impressive on the outside…


I wasn’t sure what to expect when we entered the Athenaeum — weathered shelves of books chained to their sections? Large oaken tables for reading?  — so I was surprised when the first thing I encountered was an extensive contemporary fiction and non-fiction collection. All appeared to be available for checkout, just like you’d see in a typical public library.

Athenaeum interior

Just look at this gorgeous room!


Then I realized that this was an active public library in its own right, and that the special collections (i.e. old tomes) must be held elsewhere, to be accessed upon consultation and permission. The overall impression was of a living past, with beautifully-wrought shelves framing the bright covers of the newest best-sellers. I liked it!

I liked it even more when I realized that the balcony level held alcoves with desks for private study, and they were in use by a diverse set of patrons. While I peered upwards, I saw a pink polka-dotted sock leisurely stretch out, bop along to some invisible music, then quickly disappear.

There were plenty of nooks for reading throughout, and the downstairs level offered more spaces for study, as well as a rare book room (sadly closed). In the hushed atmosphere, it was easy to lose track of time as I drifted from shelf to shelf — there was so much to explore!

card catalog

There were classic touches like the old-style card catalog…



And signs like these


The displays in front were equally compelling and eclectic — a history of fashion sat next to a compilation of famous letters, begging to be leafed through. I obliged, and happened upon a letter by Hunter S. Thompson, a rejection memo for Fawlty Towers, and a series of gorgeous evening gowns in quick succession.

I wished for an afternoon’s worth of time, but dinner called (via my rumbling stomach). When it was time to go, we bundled up and set out again into the brisk wind, leaving that haven of light and silence behind.

If you’re ever in the Providence area, I’d highly recommend adding this to your list of stops!



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This entry was posted on January 10, 2015 by in Book Trails.
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