Symposium Books, an independent bookstore on Westminster Street in downtown Providence, will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2024. Opened in January 2004, the shop sells books, records and gifts.
The owner of Symposium Books, Scott McCullough, grew up in New York and studied philosophy in college. “So naturally, I loved books,” he said.
While deciding to pursue a graduate degree, McCullough took a job at Columbia’s bookstore, where he found a passion for working with books. With his wife Anne Marie Keohane — who was working in publishing at the time — McCullough then decided to open a bookstore in downtown Providence in 2003.
“We first started with wholesale and books online,” McCullough said. In 2004, McCullough officially opened Symposium Books, naming it after Plato’s “Symposium.”
“At the time, I envisioned it a little bit to be a loosely structured meeting place to discuss ideas and have a few drinks while talking,” McCullough said. Though the bookstore has not followed through with the latter part of the vision yet, “at some point we’d like to incorporate that,” he added.
Frequent visitors of the store praise its wide-ranging selection. “It is the main bookstore I visit, and I like the fact that they have new and used books,” said Jeff Flemming, a Providence local. As a supporter of local businesses, Flemming sometimes sells books back to the store and buys the books he wants to read next.
Josephine Henderson, a first-time shopper at Symposium, recently visited the store to stock up for the holidays, when she anticipates doing a lot of traveling. “I searched up bookstores at the airport and this one looked nice with its selection,” she said.
Though McCullough fields inventory recommendations from his staff, he chooses all the books sold at the store himself. He explained that previous experiences working in the bookstore opened him up to different genres and styles of writing. When selecting books, McCullough combines his personal experience with what he believes the community is looking for.
“It’s great being here because of the community,” he said. “We carry a large art selection for RISD students. And with Brown being a large school, we can really carry everything.”
McCullough expressed pride that each section of the store features a small but thorough collection for customers to look through. He also targets books from smaller presses to diversify the collections.
While McCullough is excited to commemorate the shop’s 20th anniversary, he isn’t entirely sure when the actual date of the celebration is.
“We actually signed the lease Jan. 1 and we took off the papers on the windows as we were putting up shelves and stocking our inventory before our whole setup,” he said. “What’s the opening date? We don’t know.”
McCullough is planning to invite authors for talks and organize a party throughout the anniversary weekend. He also anticipates organizing more events throughout the year.
In the future, McCullough said he aims to continue raising awareness and monthly donations for organizations like the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and Food Not Bombs at the bookstore. “We want to help out the community, and it’s great when people come through and learn about these organizations,” he said.
Symposium Books is also aiming to collaborate more with the Providence community, citing recent partnerships with the WaterFire Center, the Graduate Hotel and the Beatrice Hotel. McCullough hopes to continue working with curated art organizations and expanding the business.
“I think people are really happy with what we have, and we’re going to keep at what we’re doing,” McCullough said.
Rebecca Weng is a Senior Staff Writer for Arts and Culture. She is a freshman from Guangzhou, China studying English and CS-Econ.