It is increasingly difficult to find traces of Newport's maritime heritage these days. It seems the salty establishments that originally attracted people to the Rhode Island resort are being squeezed out by T-shirt shoppes and time-share condos. But if you walk contrary to the maddening crowds, down Thames Street, and then turn into the lane toward the Williams & Manchester Shipyard, you'll find a suggestion of the town's legitimate past.
The Armchair Sailor Bookstore is a true gem for anyone wanting to learn more about boats, the sea and the people who spend their lives mixing the two. It is devoted exclusively to those subjects. Outside, the two-story cedar-shingle house hardly looks like a bookstore. Inside, it resembles the home of a friend who has gone overboard on nautical reading material. The books are casually stacked on windowsills and arranged on handsome mahogany shelves—not the practice of modern merchandisers who push for more volumes in tighter spaces.
Upstairs you'll find George B. Smith. He arrived from Vermont on a Greyhound bus a few years back and settled in with a book. Mind you, George can't read. He is stuffed, a life-size dummy of a gnarled old sailor with a pipe fixed firmly in his mouth, whose realism startles customers. On rainy days George used to sport a raincoat, but one day someone borrowed it and failed to bring it back.
Pose a question to one of the live staff members of the Armchair Sailor, however, and you'll immediately know you're in a first-rate bookstore. "Generally speaking, if it's a nautical book, we've heard about it," says manager Sandy Parks. "That may sound pompous, but it's true." In fact, the collective knowledge of the five staff members is one of the Armchair Sailor's greatest assets. Another is their willingness to serve.
"Many people use us to special-order non-nautical books because they like us," says Parks. If the Armchair Sailor doesn't have a particular book—which is rare—the staff will search it out, even sending overseas for it. They'll recommend books, based on specific needs, a new boat owner should have in his library. This brand of friendly service has paid off. "People buy books here when I know they can get them cheaper elsewhere, but they come here anyway," says Parks.
The Armchair Sailor stocks more than 7,000 titles—a third of them foreign—with subjects from adventure to navigation, children's tales to mechanics manuals, surface warfare textbooks to medical handbooks. All are included in an extensive 265-page mail-order catalog. The Armchair Sailor also sells videotapes, books on cassette, games and foreign and domestic magazines. "Trade in Your Loved Ones" is the store's used book section. One staffer devotes his time exclusively to used and out-of-print books. Half of the Armchair Sailor's business stems from the sale of sextants and charts of waters all over the world. Parks says she can tell the popular cruising grounds by the charts sold: This year the Mediterranean is out and the Pacific is in.
The bookstore is fast becoming as famous as Newport's leading residents. Staffers are no longer fazed by customers calling in from 12 time zones away. Authors frequently drop in, and under the guise of being customers, sneak in questions about how their own titles are moving. It's not unusual to see sailor celebrities such as Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley Jr. or Ted Turner browsing through the store. "We've even had calls from the White House when they wanted a certain nautical book for an ambassador," says Parks. "I don't know how they knew about us."
When Ron Barr opened the Armchair Sailor in June 1979, all he wanted was a friendly, simple bookstore. But without a lot of conscious effort, the store kept growing. Barr, 53, a former Outward Bound instructor, had spent the previous seven years cruising between Newfoundland and Venezuela with his girlfriend. The store's success has changed his life. He is currently immersed in franchising the Armchair Sailor, hoping eventually to have perhaps 30 locations, each with its own George. There are new outlets in Charleston, S.C.; Destin, Fla.; Mamaroneck, N.Y.; Sausalito, Calif., and Baltimore. San Diego, St. Petersburg, Fla., and St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, are the next targets.
The flagship store is on Lee's Wharf in Newport (401-847-4252), or 41°29' by 71°19', if you're arriving by water.