“Madison”—it just sounds literary. Thankfully the town, about a 25-minute drive up the shoreline from the heart of New Haven, has R.J. Julia to make it so.

By non-chain bookstore standards, R.J. Julia Booksellers is a giant. But its heart is still pure. Almost all of the R.J. Julia staff takes home stacks of galleys—advance, pre-publication copies of books about to hit the shelves. After Lori Fazio, the general manager, briefs them on upcoming events and promotions during daily morning meetings, well-read staffers discuss what they’re reading and what they’d like to see in stock. The results include a team of highly knowledgeable bibliophiles and a store with diverse offerings appealing to a wide swath of readers.

Books that employees feel especially enthusiastic about are categorized as “Staff Suggestions” and given small, white tags on which the suggesters write micro-reviews. The reviews are often gushing but also well-written and colorful. What’s especially telling about them is that they aren’t just here and there to keep up appearances—the tags are littered throughout the place, and contain great, little paragraphs like this from staffer Mary T. on Longbourn by Jo Baker:

This is the “downstairs” version of Pride and Prejudice—the intimate lives of the maids, housekeepers and footmen, and it’s so FUN and wonderful! Even Jane herself would be enthralled.

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It’s a personal touch that Fazio says goes a long way with customers, not that custom is the only point. Fazio fondly recalls an experience a few years ago in which she helped rekindle a customer’s love of reading. She was working the floor when a woman came in, looking lost. Eventually, the woman explained to Fazio that she hadn’t read a book in years and had no idea where to start. Fazio then grilled the woman on her literary tastes and ultimately recommended Kathryn Sackett’s The Help (the source material for the Best Picture-nominated 2011 film of the same name).

Fazio figured it’d be a good “starter” novel, one with a solid, interesting and easy-to-follow narrative, one that wouldn’t scare the customer off from future reads. The recommendation ended up being the right one, as that particular customer comes back to the store almost every month and adds another title to her bookshelf, according to Fazio, who adds that these sorts of personal interactions happen frequently at R.J.

For patrons who don’t want to waste any time diving into their purchases, the shop has a full-service cafe in back with plentiful seating, plus a reading room on the second floor, which is quieter, without the whistle of milk steamers.

The store is famous for its packed events calendar. There are readings from heavy hitters like David Sedaris and Ann Rice but also smaller events like the once-a-month CT Writers Night, where three local writers read from their work and take questions from the audience.

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But R.J. Julia goes well beyond author events. A book swap, in which people bring books from home and trade titles with others, just happened at the end of October. Every Tuesday morning there’s a “Children’s Story Time” session. Several different book clubs—like the Debut Author Book Club, the Classics Club and the Award Winners Club, all pretty self-explanatory—meet there monthly. Folks are welcome to join any club they like, and if none of the existing ones feels right, the store entertains pitches for new clubs.

R.J. Julia Press, a self-publishing platform for writers of all stripes that works with local printers, is the shop’s latest endeavor. The program is in its infancy; Fazio says it’s published a few authors to date and hopes others will share their work this way.

As I descended the stairs from Fazio’s second-floor office, the store was much more crowded than when I’d entered an hour before. Yet it was still quiet. Several customers leaned against bookcases, focused and flipping through pages. A young woman excitedly pulled a new Dave Eggers novel from the shelf and held the cover close to her face, closely scrutinizing the design. A grandmother came down the staircase holding a stack of picture books for her grandson. In the front of the room, a staffer stood behind the information desk, beaming at the scene before her.

Searching and finding and searching some more—that’s what it’s all about.

R.J. Julia Booksellers
768 Boston Post Rd, Madison (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-6pm
(203) 245-3959

Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.

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Jake is a writer and a teacher whose fiction and non-fiction can be found in Abe's Penny, The Huffington Post, The New York Press and elsewhere. For a spell, he made a living writing 'comedic ringtones,' which meant hundreds of really bad cellphone-related knock-knock jokes and puns. He lives in New Haven with his wife and cats.

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