RJ Julia founder talks indie bookstore’s origins in Madison, innovation and podcast

In her late 30s, Roxanne Coady had a job in accounting, a great apartment in New York City and a life many would envy. On the cusp of 40, she had a quasi-midlife crisis that drove her to quit her job and buy a building in Madison, Conn. for a bookstore. She and her husband Kevin were familiar with the area as they had a weekend home in Branford. Friends and coworkers thought she was crazy and in hindsight, she agrees. Thirty two years later, however, it clearly worked out as RJ Julia Booksellers, has been thriving in the community and later opened a second location at Wesleyan University in 2017.

“We didn’t have any kids and it looked like we weren’t going to have kids, so it seemed like turning 40 was a good opportunity to try something else,” she said. Life can turn on a dime whilst making plans though. In January 1989, she gave her job the required six months notice to take effect in July and in May bought the building. She got pregnant that summer, opened the store in April 1990 and had a son, Edward, in June. “Edward is 32 and his sibling is a bookstore,” she joked.

Roxanne Coady started RJ Julia Booksellers in 1990. 

Roxanne Coady started RJ Julia Booksellers in 1990. 

Courtesy of RJ Julia Booksellers

The shop speaks to her love of her family and the importance of education. The R is for Roxanne but J is Kevin’s middle name, Joseph, as RK didn’t quite sound right. The “Julia” is a nod to her grandmother, who endured many hardships in Europe during WWII as a new widow with scant resources. She managed to see her son, Roxanne’s father, finish high school before her death.

Independent bookstores once dotted America’s landscape — a fixture of small towns and cities. In recent years, though, many are out of business. Coady’s success likely lies in her business acumen and creating a place where words matter, writers and readers mingle and all can be inspired and educated.

“It’s been a really great run. An independent bookstore like RJ Julia is in partnership with its community and the role of a store like ours is to be a place of discovery,” she said. “A place that feels like you know your book sellers and you can run into your friends and neighbors, but is also a window on the whole world of literature.”

She said research shows where there is a bookstore, more reading is done in that community. “I always think of a place like RJ Julia as the modern equivalent of a town green in that it’s sort of a safe space,” she said. “It’s where civil discourse can take place — and does.”

One of her guiding philosophies, “just the right book,” is now the cornerstone of two key facets of RJ Julia’s. It is the name of its personalized book subscription service as well as Coady’s podcast she has done since December 2016. In the latter, she interviews non-fiction authors: episodes air twice a month.

The subscription service is for people who don’t have a neighborhood bookstore or who have readers in their life, Coady said, saying people fill out an easy form on their reading interests. An RJ Julia bookseller then picks out a book for that person monthly. “It’s so much fun,” she said, noting a total of 20,000 subscriptions have been taken out since the service started. “The kind of notes we get all the time are ‘Gee, I would have never picked this book out for myself but it was perfect.’ That is our goal: we are helping you to be introduced to a writer or a book that you would have never picked out and you are thrilled that you did.”

In her Just The Right Book podcast, she has had many great conversations, including James Forman for Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, David Blight for his biography on Frederick Douglass, Ron Chernow for his Grant biography and Julia Samuel on Grief Works.

The shop averages over 300 author events a year in many genres. “It’s very much intended to be an eclectic array of writers because we have an eclectic array of readers,” she said. “We could have a great event and it’s a debut writer and we only have 15 people or we could have 1,000 or 1,500 for Neil Gaiman, Hillary Clinton or Ina Garten.”

Roxanne Coady has a podcast where she interviews nonfiction authors. 

Roxanne Coady has a podcast where she interviews nonfiction authors. 

Courtesy of RJ Julia Booksellers

Giving back to the community is also another core of Coady’s life. “We [at RJ Julia] have probably given away millions of dollars in dollars, discounts and books in our 32 years because that is part of our job as a member of our community,” she said. They work with schools, authors and Read to Grow, a statewide literacy organization Coady helped found in 1998 that RJ Julia has long supported.

“I am the child of immigrants and I understand how not having a book in the house could be a financial decision, could be not having access or not feeling comfortable to go to the library because you don’t know the language,” she said. “The thing that I like about Read to Grow is that you are creating something that also belongs to others.”

Similarly, she notes that RJ Julia’s is not hers alone. “RJ Julia is an example of that. We have a team of people that are incredibly committed, smart, hard working and act as if they own the store because they are committed to our mission,” she said, noting that this was something that they saw during the pandemic.

“One of the things that was very gratifying that sort of coalesced a lot of our years as a business was going through COVID. We learned a very important lesson that it is a long game,” she said. “When things got tough, we asked our customers to really support us in as robust a way as they could, and they did. And when we had to lean on our staff to help us get through it, they came through in a way that really during that time would literally bring tears to my eyes. They were so committed, but you don’t invent that at the last minute.”

Coady said the reason this worked is because as a team  — the staff, customers and the store’s leadership team — went into that crisis with a lot of credit. “Customers knew they could count on us, staff knew they could count on me, and I knew I could count on both of them so it ended up being sort of a silver lining to a horrible situation that we came together and got through.”

Coady isn’t in the shop every day but works on her podcast and big picture strategizing. In her off-hours, she volunteers for The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and other non-profits.

“My goal at the store is to make sure we are strategically always thinking in a forward way, being innovative, and we never rest on our reputation but continue to think about ways that we can make a difference in our community,” she said. “Our goal is to put the right book in the right hands, making sure we are financially stable, well trained and well stocked.”