Wesleyan University and city officials welcomed the opening of the school's new bookstore on Main Street Tuesday, a business many expect will anchor a new social hub for the downtown area.
The bookstore managed by R.J. Julia Booksellers is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (and until 6 p.m. on Sundays) at 413 Main St. along with its organic fast food cafe, grown.
At a ribbon-cutting Tuesday afternoon, R.J. Julia owner Roxanne Coady said the combination of Wesleyan and the bookstore presents a great opportunity for the community.
"The opportunity we have is to be a new standard for college bookstores," Coady said. "In 27 years as a bookseller, what I've learned is books change a life. We really have the opportunity to change lives."
Having a bookstore on Main Street has long been a goal of community and business groups in Middletown. The hundreds of yearly events, book signings and author talks are expected to bring scores to the city, some possibly for the first time, who will also eat at local restaurants and shop at local stores.
"We have a lot of exciting things going on but this one is a cut above," said Mayor Daniel Drew.
"This is a true community effort," Drew said. "This isn't just a nice single project. This is a transformational moment for the city of Middletown. This is going to be one of those moments people look to to understand the trajectory of Middletown's growth and success."
The bookstore's cafe, grown, is a Miami-based restaurant started by Middletown native and Mercy High School graduate Shannon Allen and her husband Ray Allen, a former UConn basketball and NBA player. She said the idea for the restaurant came after her son, Walker, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, significantly limiting the family's meal options.
"No one was selling dinner, real food, with the convenience of a drive-through," Shannon Allen said. "Food is not made or manufactured, it's grown."
The restaurant serves all-organic food with gluten-free and vegan options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She said she is thrilled to open the restaurant in her hometown, right next to where she had her first job at Amato's.
"We are here in a role of support, so that as people are coming in and creating this new community and discovering new books and their love of learning and reading and shopping and sharing, they can also share a meal," Allen said. "Food is the great equalizer."
Wesleyan officials said they initially came up with the idea of moving the bookstore to Main Street as a way of strengthening the university's bond with its host community. Wesleyan is already involved in many programs throughout the city, but having "Wesleyan University" visible to the community on Main Street was the next stop, President Michael Roth has said.
"You will meet people you wouldn't have met otherwise. You will find books you didn't know you wanted," Roth said. "You will have a great meal at grown where you will sit down and read a book and make a friend and be part of this great city of Middletown and this great university at Wesleyan. Those are powerful synergies."
Roth said he bought his first of many books at the store just moments before he started speaking at the ribbon cutting. He said he bought, "The Age of the Horse" for his wife, who is working on a book about horses.
The bookstore is fully open to the public, and grown will be open in a few days. There will be a grand-opening celebration at the bookstore for the public on June 3, with its first author event that night at 7 p.m.