On a drizzly November day, stepping off Green Street into Papercuts, Jamaica Plain’s independent bookstore, is like walking to a hearth to hold your hands above the flames—immediately warming, consoling, and familiar.
Papercuts is tucked away off Jamaica Plain’s main drag, Centre Street, and the 500-square-foot bookish oasis is on the brink of its one-year anniversary, said the founder and manager Kate Layte. On Nov. 29, which also marks national Small Business Saturday, the store celebrated its first full year of operation.
“It was three years ago, when I woke up one day and was like, ‘I can do that. I can run a bookstore,’” Layte said. And she certainly created a haven for the community’s book lovers, curating a selection of over 3,500 titles suitable for a politically inclined, artistic, and curious crowd, said Layte, a Jamaica Plain resident for eight years.
“It’s partly a selfish reason, why I opened this bookstore,” Layte said. “I knew I lived in an area where there were so many talented and creative people. And honestly, how do you really meet your neighbors these days? You don’t—and the people I’ve met this past year—it’s blown my mind.”
Within the year, Papercuts hosted author events, including an evening with local writer Jabari Asim for Black History Month, Layte gave a TEDx talk on the vitality and importance of the indie bookstore, and the store is slated to release an anthology, “What Happened Here: Year One at Papercuts J.P.,” containing works from all of the authors who’ve visited the store on Green Street.
In the digital age, where the bookstore landscape withered and the ease of online orders besets most peoples’ desire to walk through a physical door, Papercuts achieved no small feat. Layte said its success is largely credited to the bookstores’ ability to create community engagement and meaningful discourse.
“The community wants good books to read and a space to connect,” Layte said. “It’s so funny how many people come into the store and run into someone they know, someone they haven’t seen in a while, or someone new. People are drawn to a place like this.”
Layte’s history with books is a life-long love affair. As a child, she said she spent endless hours her elementary school’s library stacks reading (mostly “Goosebumps”), and in adulthood she turned her scholastic zeal into a career. She worked at Borders and in the editorial department of Little, Brown and Company. She then earned a certificate in publishing from Boston University and became an assistant to the senior managing editor at Little, Brown.
But one day, she said she woke up and decided she’d open a bookstore. She joined the American Book Association, a national trade group for independent bookstores, which offers a book selling kit detailing the steps for starting a bookstore, she said. Layte got the kit, and began moving through the checklist, thinking about what she wanted the store to look like, what kind of inventory system she’d use, and the demographic she wanted to reach, she said. Layte said she took a series of online course, and worked with a mentor at the Small Business Association to write a business plan, too.
“I took advantage of as much as I could,” Layte said. “And I just didn’t shut up about it for two years. I made lists about everything I needed to learn—really actionable lists to see if I could really accomplish this.”
A year later, she said she’s proud of what she’s created.
“I took a leap and hoped that the community wanted it, too.” Layte said. “And then they caught me and supported me, and now we’ve built a community.”
Her literary career came full circle when she opened Papercuts. The media events coordinator, Katie Eelman, was Layte’s former intern at Little, Brown, and her bookseller John Cleary, worked with Layte at Borders in Boston’s Downtown Crossing.
Cleary, who’s known Layte for nine years, said that when he was offered a position as a bookseller, he took it right away.
“It’s my job to know about books and to answer questions about the store and recommend my favorite reads,” Clearly said. “That’s probably the best part of working here—I get to discuss books I feel passionate about.”
Cleary said he reads a lot of political non-fiction, memoirs, some fantasy, horror, and a little bit of sci-fi, too. This motley company of genres complements Layte’s taste for books, she said. And it’s this diversity of interests that makes Papercuts’ selection honed, but varied. There’s a lot packed into the shelves in the tiny space.
The quality of the selection draws customers like Isha Vicaria, who lives up Green Street, into the store. She poked around the fiction section, clutching a copy of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” that Layte helped her pick out.
“Sometimes I don’t know what I want until I hold it in my hands,” Vicaria said.
Jamaica Plain oddly lacks bookstores, Vicaria said, and Papercuts filled the void—very naturally and gracefully. Although Vicaria said she likes the convenience of online book sales, she said the store offers a more satisfying experience, a sentiment Eelman, the media and events coordinator echoed.
“Bookstores allow that curiosity and wonder,” Eelman said. “They bring in a world of different ways of thinking and being able to peruse the shelves and pick out what you might be interested in that day at the moment is truly a magical experience. I don’t think you get that experience online.”
Eelman, who plans Papercuts’ events, manages the social media and marketing, and helps produce the store’s podcast, said she feels connected to Jamaica Plain after just a year of working at the bookstore.
“It’s a place people feel welcomed and we’re fostering community and they get to be a part of it,” Eelman said.
Papercuts engages the community in a myriad of ways—from the events to keeping local writers stocked on the shelves, to providing a space for conversations pertinent to the people of JP, to putting its residents’ art up on the walls. One of those featured artists is Susan Hardy Brown, and her work will become a bookmark to be sold at the store, said Layte.
Brown’s art currently hangs on a wall in Papercuts. It’s a collection of wooden boards painted midnight sky blue and embellished with pressed Queen Anne’s lace. Brown said she’s honored to add to the store’s homey, whimsical aesthetic.
“The whole atmosphere is cozy and intimate,” Brown said. “It’s wondrous.”
Brown is a close friend of Layte’s most recent hire, Mike Curley, who was also Layte’s boss at Little, Brown. He’s training to help during the holidays at Papercuts, he said.
“I’m not surprised by her success,” Curley sad. “What’s amazed me is how she can interpret people’s taste. Her passion for reading is evident. It shines through and it’s a draw for customers.”
Layte said she’s always valued bookstores for this reason; they’re a place to find solace in the stacks. This is what her TEDx talk discussed: this notion of human connection through reading that Layte said changed her life.
“When you read, you discover that you’re not alone in the world, that people have had these experiences before,” Layte said. “In books, we find real selves, real portrayals of people with depth. People have written a lot of good stuff to help us understand world, the each other, and ourselves.”