The Owl Lives On: Welcome to the (New) Provincetown Bookshop!
For many years, no visit to Provincetown was complete without an hour or more spent browsing at the Provincetown Bookshop. Its distinctive owl logo beckoned visitors and townies alike in, and its eccentric layout and surprisingly wide array of genres and topics kept them coming back. Then in 2021 the building was sold and for a time it seemed the venerable bookshop—founded in 1932—could be no more.
Then a fairy godmother—in the person of Barbara Clarke—swooped in and bought the shop, reimagining and relocating it, continuing the tradition of a local independent bookseller with updates and a fresh look and feel. “I like to say to customers, it’s the same shop—but everything’s different,” says manager Derek McCormack. “From the feeling of wonder upon entry to the eager satisfaction of leaving with a new book you can’t wait to read (or two…or three…), the shop still remains that same one we all came to love. True, many things now have a new coat of paint. But the authentic energy that has sustained the bookshop through 90 years is still alive and well, and I have no doubt that that very same energy will sustain us to 100 and, I hope, far beyond.”
Paul Smith opened the bookshop in 1932 in its first location at 447 Commercial Street and featured books by writers connected to the area, a tradition that continues today. (He also allowed folks to borrow books for about a nickel a day; that’s a tradition we’d all like to see return!)
In the late ‘30s the bookshop was at 265 Commercial Street (now WayDowntown) until Smith purchased 246 Commercial Street in 1939 and added the modern retail addition in the front—which reminded people so much of a ship that it became known as the Porthole Building! It was the home of the Provincetown Bookshop for over eighty years until its current incarnation at 229 Commercial Street.
The Smiths sold the building and the bookshop to musician, Joel Newman and his partner, Elloyd Hanson in 1963. “Many folks have lots of memories of the two of them over their sixty-plus years of ownership,” says Clarke. Hanson died in 2007 and Newman in 2014; and Newman’s family ran the bookshop from afar before selling the building to Hennep dispensary and the shop to Clarke. (In a lovely gesture of the goodwill that is endemic to Ptown, Hennep offered employment to any of the booksellers displaced by the dispensary).
McCormack brings an impressive background to his role as manager. While he was previously a bookseller at both Tim’s Used Books and the Provincetown Bookshop, McCormack’s primary experience was through McNally Jackson Books in New York, one of the country’s pre-eminent indies. “In working there I learned most of what I know about curation, hand-selling, merchandising, and bookstore operations,” he says. “I spent two years working full-time at the SoHo store, helping many, many customers and learning about thousands of books, and I often joke that, given the amount of information I learned and the level of experience I came to obtain, my time there was the equivalent of earning an MFA!”
He is excited about the shop’s first full summer since re-opening. “I think now that the bookshop has a functional operation again in a new space, our next goals are centered around outreach, including author events, business partnerships, and integrating ourselves more broadly into the year-long Provincetown calendar,” says McCormack. “I have a few ideas I’m really excited about and I’m also very curious what opportunities will arise spontaneously as we gear up for our first summer season as a reimagined institution.”
It will all happen, of course, under the eye of the same (but equally re-imagined!) owl. It wouldn’t be the Provincetown Bookshop without its watchful presence!