Top Shelf

Emma Ramadan on the story behind her bookstore bar


Combining a bookstore and a bar makes so much sense, doesn’t it? Buy a hardback, pull up a stool, and start talking about literature with the next patron over. This bohemian ideal led to Trident Books in Boston, First Draft Book Bar in Phoenix, and The Spotty Dog Books & Ale in New York City – and it was this last venue that inspired Emma Ramadan and Tom Roberge to open Riffraff, the premiere bookstore-bar in Providence.

“There were all these really nice examples of bookstore bars popping up across the US,” says Ramadan, who studied literature in Providence before earning her master’s degree in French translation in Paris. As Ramadan notes, the bar isn’t just a fun concept; it’s also a clever way to bolster income, since books have an infamously low profit margin. “You see a lot of bookstores selling non-book items, like candles or magnets or socks, to boost their sales. That’s just not something we were interested in. Can you imagine our store suddenly having a magnet section?”

Riffraff recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, and the basement shop has already become a fixture in the Olneyville renaissance. Visitors notice right away that Riffraff is no ordinary book dealer; Ramadan and Roberge carefully select their titles, in- fusing their shelves with personal taste. That same sensibility informs their bar area.

“We have a limited amount of space,” says Ramadan, “so every bottle was chosen with a lot of thought. In the same way we don’t have any books we’re not super proud to be selling, we don’t have any booze we’re not super proud to be serving.”

When Riffraff first opened, they worked closely with bartender Brad Kirton to creaate their cocktail menu; when Kirton be- came a massage therapist, veteran bar- tender Alexandra Tilden picked up where he left of. The cocktails evolve seasonally, incorporating more whiskey in winter and tequila in summer.

The clientele has thrown them some curveballs: Ramadan and Roberge expected to host “book club women” who might like “a nice glass of wine,” but visitors have shown far more interest in beer and liquor. They also didn’t plan to sell cookbooks, yet cookbooks have become some of their hottest sellers.

Such flexibility has its merits. Riffraff hosts a good number of special events, including a tiki night, and the couple decided to treat themselves to some nostalgia. “One of the drinks that’s on the tiki menu is something that, when we were on our honeymoon, they had at our hotel,” says Ramadan. “We were so obsessed with it, and we thought, ‘We have to go back and put this on our menu at Riffraff!’”


60 Valley Street, Olneyville, #107A | 421-4371