Sometimes in life, all you have to do is ask.
That’s what happened on May 5th when Providence independent bookshop Books on the Square posted a photo of several books both by and about Vice President Kamala Harris on its Facebook and Instagram accounts with the caption, “Welcome to Little Rhody, VP Kamala Harris! We know you’re busy, but stop by if you have a minute.”
Just hours later, that wish was granted. An entourage including the Vice President and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, along with several Secret Service agents, were perusing books and gifts in the Wayland Square shop.
I sat down with Books on the Square store manager Jennifer Kandarian to find out what it was like to unexpectedly host the country’s most powerful woman.
WUN: Can you walk us through how Books on the Square was notified of the Vice President’s visit?
JK: It was such a surprise! The Secret Service and Vice Presidential aides just suddenly walked into the store and said, “We need to talk to your manager.” When I came to see how I could help I was told the Vice President would be arriving in 30 minutes, and I was asked to keep that information to myself.
If we’d had more advance notice, the store owners would have been on site. They would have loved to meet the Vice President! We weren’t able to notify them until after the fact.
WUN: What was it like having Secret Service agents walking around? Did they discourage customers from entering?
JK: They are very efficient! As soon as they said this is what will happen, I realized there were already agents stationed outside both our front and back doors. I walked them through the store so they could see the different entry points, and they walked around to ensure it was secure. Then (laughing) I had 20 minutes to fret about the fact that I had chosen to wear jeans to work! But really, everyone was so nice and very professional.
There were already customers in the store, and they didn’t kick anyone out or prevent anyone from coming in. There were two young girls tucked around one corner looking at books, and when we told them what was going on, they didn’t believe us at first but then were very excited when the store soon filled up with all these dignitaries – Vice President Harris, Governor Dan McKee, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, plus their staff and all these people from the press. The girls ended up getting to meet the Vice President!
WUN: Your website says that during the visit, former Rhode Island Governor (now U.S. Secretary of Commerce) Gina Raimondo reportedly announced, “This is my neighborhood store. The best place ever.” Can you recall a past interaction with Ms. Raimondo?
JK: When she was the Governor, she actually used to come in on Sundays – not just her, but she would bring her entire family. It was her family day! It was such a great way for them to bond on a weekend.
WUN: What did Vice President Harris purchase? Did she already know what she wanted, or did she ask for recommendations?
JK: She had a list of books she said she’s been wanting to read! She bought four: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead; Simply Julia: 110 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food by Julia Turshen; The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; and The Topeka School by Ben Lerner.
WUN: Have you read any of these books yourself?
JK: I have – in fact, The Nickel Boys is one of my favorite books ever! I was very excited she wanted a copy of her own.
WUN: Were you surprised by the choices? What would you have expected the VP to buy?
JK: I’m not surprised at what people want to read because there’s something for every kind of passion and pursuit. And really, who doesn’t love cookbooks and fiction? (laughing) She has the second toughest job in the world, so I think fiction’s probably a good choice!
WUN: What book would you have recommended if the Vice President asked for a suggestion?
JK: Probably The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, which was on the New York Times list and many others last year. It’s a great book! The characters and writing are amazing. It’s one of those stories you just want to share with other people so you can talk about it.
WUN: OK, she may not have gotten to ask you about The Vanishing Half, but what DID you and Vice President Harris talk about?
JK: It was a very quick conversation, but we crammed in a lot! The Vice President was very supportive of how our store had survived COVID-19 and had to adapt our methods to meet customer needs, so we talked of partial and online sales, and curbside pickup, and about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan that Books on the Square had to secure in order to make payroll to keep our staff. When VP Harris commented on the importance of small businesses, I said I think we learned the importance of great government, and we got to laugh together at that.
WUN: Now that VP Harris has helped put a spotlight on Books on the Square, what other business would you suggest as the next place for VP Harris to visit if she returns to RI?
JK: I love what gift and clothing shop Frog & Toad does. They spotlight as many local artists as possible, and they are terrific about supporting other small businesses in the community!
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