Literary Pit Stop: RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH

By Katy Kelleher

In the age of digital books and online shopping, it is harder than ever for an independent bookstore to survive. Unable to compete with internet behemoth, many have been forced to close their doors for good. Add the rise of the e-reader to that equation and you have a pretty dire forecast for small businesses. The market for books may be as healthy as ever, but the plethora of online options makes a visit to a brick-and-mortar look like a hassle, even to self-proclaimed bookworms like me.

And that’s one of the reasons I started writing this series. It has never been more important to buy local and support small businesses. Fortunately, places like RiverRun Bookstore make this feel like a pleasure, not a chore.

Located in the picturesque town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, RiverRun is an independently owned business that specializes in books about New England, or those written by local authors. Tucked away from the main drag, RiverRun is easy to miss. And while I didn’t visit during peak tourist season (the summer months are busy on this small coastal city), Portsmouth’s main streets were still busy, filled with people shopping or taking their lunch breaks. It was the first flush of autumn, and the leaves were just beginning to change, giving the quaint brick buildings a postcard-like quality. Even the light in Portsmouth was gorgeous—luminous and bright, as though summer couldn’t quite let go of the seaside community.

I had been told by a former Portsmouth resident that I needed to visit the bookstore, and never one to pass up local intel, I made it a mandatory pit stop on my tour of the city. As soon as I turned down the brick-lined street and entered the shop, I was thankful for this decision. Inside, RiverRun is sunny and spacious, with hardwood floors and brass details on the walls. Like everything else in Portsmouth, it felt somehow nautically themed, but maybe I was just picking up vibes from the selection of books on display. Big gorgeous coffee table books on shipbuilding and New England architecture stood proudly next to attention-grabbing bestsellers. There was also an entire selection dedicated to books by local authors, which is fitting since RiverRun also runs a small publishing label for exactly this demographic.

I must admit, I was particularly charmed by the seafaring themes. Growing up outside Boston, I’ve always had a soft spot for American naval history. I count Moby Dick as one of my favorite books, and I even have a tiny anchor tattooed on the inside of my left wrist. But even though I’m the target audience for this sort of tourism, I think others would enjoy the local flavor. Just as you can tell a lot about a new friend from a quick glance at their bookshelves, you can learn a lot about a town from a visit to their bookstore. Judging by RiverRun’s displays and staff selections, Portsmouth is a highly literary town with a healthy food culture.

In any store, my natural tendency is to gravitate toward the sale section. While I’m all for supporting the publishing industry, I’m also a huge fan of buying used books, and RiverRun didn’t disappoint in this department. Unlike some stores, where the used books seem dingy and old, bruised by many hands, RiverRun had a nice selection of lightly used novels. Many of the books still had the shiny covers, stiff spines, and uncreased pages of a brand new purchase. I realize that’s not the most important thing, but it is always nice to see when readers care for their books.

In the end, I bought just one thing: A used copy of Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie. Though I’m only a third of the way through it, I’m excited to report that it was a worthy pick (and not just because of the beautiful illustration that adorns the cover). As you might expect from the award-winning author, it’s beautifully written and wildly imaginative—but I’ll leave the review for another post.

If you happen to find yourself vacationing in New Hampshire, please do add RiverRun to your itinerary. Just last year, the owner admitted that the shop was in danger of shutting down, and there have been rumors that the much-loved store isn’t getting as much foot traffic as it needs. But don’t think of this as a call to arms, just a gentle reminder to shut down your laptop and check out the shelves nearby.

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