Setup at the new Wesleyan University bookstore operated by R.J. Julia Booksellers is moving at a frantic pace with less than three weeks to go before the grand opening.
The new shop at 413 Main St. is scheduled to open June 3, and on a tour Monday with R.J. Julia owner Roxanne Coady the activity was guided by her calm but intense energy. Staff were unboxing, drilling, shelf-stocking and assembling as the five-month construction soon comes to a close.
Wesleyan's project will be finished just a bit over a year since President Michael Roth announced that the university was committed to moving its bookstore to Main Street.
The buzz downtown has skyrocketed. In March, Wesleyan announced that the bookstore's cafe will be run by grown, a Miami-based organic fast food restaurant owned and operated by UConn star and NBA champion Ray Allen and his wife Shannon Allen, a Middletown native.
R.J. Julia has hired 20 people already, about half full-time and half part-time. Construction began in January, transforming the partitioned former Itkins Decorators store into a street-level atrium that gives way to the lower level event area.
The 13,000-square-foot, two-level store took shape in under six months.
"We're opening this store, which we're wildly excited about, and in many ways it will be like R.J. Julia's [original Madison store] in a sense that it will have a broad selection of books, that our booksellers will be really well-trained to help every customer get the right book in the right hand, but in addition here because of Wesleyan and being in Middletown we'll be able to have an equally if not more vibrant set of events," Coady said. "There will be lots of different ways we can be reactive to what the community of Wesleyan and the community of Middletown will want."
Coady said she expects the Middletown store to offer 200 or more events a year.
The store will have an entrance from Main Street and one from the rear, accessed through the city parking lot off Broad Street that also provides access to Kidcity. The front of the store will have the grown cafe area and a section of staff recommendations and new releases. A children's section, where weekly Saturday morning story time events will be held, is in the rear of the store.
Sections for fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, lifestyle and every other standard bookstore offering will be woven throughout the building.
Downstairs, the setting is more like a library, Coady said, with a textbook area and a Wesleyan curriculum employee stationed there full-time. The downstairs space can also be transformed to host up to 100 people to attend book signings or other events. Many more can view the events from the main level.
Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce President Larry McHugh said a bookstore on Main Street has been a goal for the business community at least since the 1980s, forever near the top of the list of priorities that also emphasized a theater and hotel.
"It's going to be a destination, and any time you have a destination business, you've got people coming from all over and what you've got to do is take advantage of that with people coming in here. Our retailers, our restaurants, everyone should benefit with R.J. Julia," McHugh said. "It's just phenomenal for Middletown. R.J. Julia's reputation is just fantastic."
McHugh and Wesleyan officials said they see the Wesleyan logo on Main Street as a major step in connecting the university with the downtown shoppers and visitors. The shop will be stocked with Wesleyan apparel but will also carry Middletown-themed items and include photos on the walls of both the campus and the city.
"It's going to bring students and faculty down who normally wouldn't come down," McHugh said.
Many local officials agree the addition of Wesleyan, R.J. Julia and grown in Main Street's busiest block is the type of project that will provide an enormous boost for the local economy.
"This is a transformative project for Main Street," said Mayor Daniel Drew. "Having a huge bookstore that is Wesleyan's branch of R.J. Julia with an organic food restaurant with grown, it's going to increase Main Street's attractiveness as a destination."
He said the bookstore will bring in new revenue for the businesses in the downtown core, add to the quality of life for area residents, and have long-term positive impacts on the city's tax base.
At the time Wesleyan and R.J. Julia announced their partnership last year and unveiled their chosen Main Street location, the vendor for the shop's cafe was unknown.
"We were talking with Wesleyan and R.J. Julia, and [grown] ended up being an extraordinary bit of good news," Drew said.
In handout materials, grown describes itself as "farm-to-fork cuisine with the convenience of fast-food dining" that includes a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The restaurant will be open with the bookstore Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Allens opened grown in March 2016 in Miami, and now have other locations in Orlando and inside the new Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, home of the Miami Dolphins and University of Miami football teams.
Wesleyan's bookstore will open to the public June 3 at 9 a.m., and will offer events for children, giveaways, and its first author event at 7 p.m., where author Andrew Blauner will talk about his anthology, "In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs," with contributors to the work.
Wesleyan spokeswoman Lauren Rubenstein said the school is keeping the old Broad Street Books property at 45 Broad St. open, but no decision has been made on what will occupy the former bookstore location. The Argus campus newspaper, WESU radio and the Red & Black Cafe will stay, she said.