In 2016, only 3.9 percent of responses by the Boston Fire Department (BFD) were for actual fires. In fact, more departments are training their firefighters in other skill sets since there are simply fewer fires than there used to be. So when the BFD responded to a 2018 call on Newbury Street for a bookstore fire, it must’ve made for a compelling story to recount back at the station.
The fire changed Trident Booksellers. But it also didn’t.
“We wanted to come back as the same Trident,” said Caitlin Kling, an events coordinator for the bookstore.
And as disasters go, this one certainly could’ve been worse. There was a huge outpouring of support from surrounding locals and businesses, no major injuries, and it came right as the independent bookseller was looking to sharpen its community engagement. The reopening was held in late August 2018.
Trident Booksellers and Cafe first opened on Newbury in 1984 as a hole-in-the-wall bookstore replete with regular customers, tightly packed shelves, and everything else we mean when we talk about that old bookstore at home that “sadly closed a few years ago.” But not The Trident. It’s probably because of the food.
“The [oiginal] owner, Bernie Flynn, would just, like, grab a hot plate and cook eggs on demand for people. And then it sort of evolved into a restaurant,” Kling said.
The Trident still offers eggs (affectionately called “Bennies” on the ever-evolving menu), but also everything from craft beers and loose-leaf teas to unlimited-refill coffee that—despite being from an industrial Mr. Coffee, filters and all—is not to be put to shame. The Trident isn’t simply a bookstore ft. a cafe, but a full-service kitchen working from 8 a.m. to midnight, everyday, functioning in lockstep with one of the last independent bookstores in Boston proper. And that bookstore still has a lot to say.
If management wanted to be thorough, The Trident could be renamed “Trident: Booksellers, Cafe, and Events,” but the old, gothic style sign hanging out front has only so much space on it (none), and URLs should be only so long (tridentbooksellerscafe.com is already pushing it).
“Having one to two events every night is special, because then people can just like, check the calendar online and be like, ‘I wonder what’s happening tonight?’” said Dana Guth, another event coordinator for The Trident.
Getting people in the door even once is vital to keep them in the orbit and coming back and ensuring the store remains on their roster of Newbury St. shopping spots.
Locals from the Back Bay or the South End, college students, and people in Boston’s literary circles all have opportunities to host or attend events that fit their interest, activity, and even levels of extroversion.
If your goal in life is to have that one chance meeting at a bookstore that changes it all, The Trident offers speed dating. Or if you’re a week deep into finals season with six essays to write, there’s self-care nights where Kling promised me that if I went, I wouldn’t even have to talk to anyone. Even there’s never (yet) been a line out the door for self-care night or silent book club, these events are all well-attended with customers enticed with food (or beer) coupons as their tickets in. Or, they found, just pick a good movie.
“Two hundred people showed up and wanted to watch Into the Spiderverse with us,” said Guth, who expected a maximum of 100 people to watch.
“Just play Spiderverse and they will come is what we learned,” Kling said.
After the fire, The Trident added a second cafe space to accommodate just the kind of population influx that anything from a Marvel screening to the Saturday afternoon lunch rush between boutique shopping might generate.
It is “The Trident,” by the way.
“Makes it seem more legit,” Guth said.
The Trident is legit for a bookstore in 2019 that’s not only still standing, but successful. Bookshelves line walls and centerpieces, but so do Moleskines, kitchen towels with eccentric and sometimes explicit language, and not a single greeting card that isn’t wrapped in that premium see-through plastic meant to preserve the artisanal paper quality that lies within.
“Looking at all that is like real-life scrolling,” said Danielle Deluty, a Boston University Law School student as she motioned behind her toward the cards and trinkets and discounted books.
The same is true as you look down the bar: Two TVs are constantly running on mute as they play through a well-curated list of selections that includes everything from subtitled, feature-length animes to Monsters, Inc. to Night at the Museum. I’m yet to see them play anything twice.
There’s people scrolling to be had, too. Many customers come to the bar for an entire morning or afternoon, ordering another drink or snack every few hours while trying to get some school or office work done. Between them, though, are the people actually just coming for hip comfort food and a place to talk. It’s also a great vent space.
During my last visit, I overheard—at length—two college friends as they met up to share extensive relationship updates while they nursed hot chocolates fit for a ski lodge. Despite not opting for the CBD oil shot (a four dollar addition to most drinks offered), they were certainly comfortable. Their conversation was better suited for a 1:30 am weekend chat with approximately zero strangers in earshot. But The Trident has a way of evoking that energy anytime.
“I’ve also heard of us referred to a lot as ‘the third place,’” Kling said. “If you spend all of your time at work or at home, that can get monotonous, so you want like, a third one.”
Homestyle cooking and literary events have, so far, been successful in fostering just that kind of community no matter if you’re looking for new friends or just trying to cram out an essay without staring at a graffitied library stall. The Trident flies right in the face of the trope that all independent bookstores are either closing or on the way out. While next to it on Newbury Street sits a Starbucks, a Muji, and a Patagonia, there’s something keeping it there, thriving.
“We try new things all the time, “ said Guth. “People feel like they can be heard here.”