Porter Square Books Offers Potential Nirvana for Select Community Members: Writer-in-Residence Role

Porter Square Books attracts Thursday workers as well as browsers. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Porter Square Books will reinstate its writer-in-residence program in February, the store announced it last week on Twitter.

The bookstore will select two writers – one youth and one adult – from a pool of applicants to write articles for the store’s blog, interact with other writers, participate in in-store events and use store space to work on their own parts, the store owners said.

Writers-in-Residence will receive a 40% discount on products from stores and cafes, have access to the “Cambridge Edition” desk at 25 White Street after 5 p.m. and on weekends (“a quiet space with flat surfaces,” is the only promise), a chance to contribute staff recommendations, and an “if, uh, I mean, when” book launch party is published. Writers will also have access to a library full of galleys – unpublished books – to use for inspiration and to see which publishers might be a good match.

“We are always looking for other 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 writer. “We have a very literary community – you can’t throw a stone without hitting a Cambridge-published writer – and we can’t offer much to writers in our community, but it’s one of those things. C That was the goal, to try and bring to the wider community some of the resources that writers who have actually worked here have used and benefited from.

While Cambridge’s other independent bookstore, Harvard Book Store, doesn’t have a writers-in-residence program, Porter Square Books isn’t the first to have the idea. There are similar programs at stores including Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, Bookshop Santa Cruz in California and Big Blue Marble Books in Philadelphia, Forbes reported.

Writers in residence leave remotely

The program started 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 went live. Even though the rest of the 2020 residency was “watered down,” Chen said the experience was still worthwhile.

Writing is an isolated activity, and it was nice to be part of a community through the residency, said Chen, a self-proclaimed “scientist-turned-writer” who now works as director of external affairs for OpenBiome, an organization in health care nonprofit in Porter Square. Since the program, Chen has published several personal essays.

“As a writer, you want to write things that you enjoy, whether they’re published or not. It’s really helpful to have some validation sometimes, to see that you’re on the right track or that others appreciate or sympathize with your writing,” he said. “It was one of the most valuable things for me – just to have that kind of support to think, ‘Yeah, other people see me as a writer, it’s not just in my head.’ It was very helpful to me.

Lamb, the 2020 Young Readers Writer-in-Residence, has also found her valuable time in residence. In an email, Lamb – who is awaiting the publication of her first novel, ‘When the Angels Left the Old Country,’ in October – said she was happy the residency program was reopening.

“It’s so valuable to have a dedicated space to work (and discounted drinks!),” she said. “I was really sorry that my residency was interrupted by the pandemic, but I’m so happy [the store] arrived flourishing and able to offer this opportunity to other local writers.

“You participate in the community”

Porter Square Books opened in 2004, surviving threats from chains such as Barnes & Noble and e-tailer Amazon that proved fatal to many other independent stores. Cook attributes it to the store’s commitment to community and providing experiences in addition to shelves. The store offers a variety of events and programs such as silent reading nights, author talks, a summer concert series, 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 – people who write write with their voice. You’re always talking to a human when you talk to Porter Square Books.

Cambridge, he said, “is also a hungry place for literature, hungry for books, and we have advantages that not all stores have, being in such a literary and reading place. I really think it’s that feeling that you’re not just shopping when you’re here, you’re participating in the community.

Residents of Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, Watertown, Medford and Boston are invited to apply for positions in the Writer-in-Residence program through July 31, with winners announced October 27.