Small Volume Books' Justine Johnson on Goofy Erotica, Fan Fiction, and CABS-Minnesota

Justine Johnson

Justine Johnson

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Justine Johnson, co-proprietor with Victoria Forsberg-Lary of Small Volume Books in Providence, Rhode Island. Open by appointment Thursday-Monday at 741 Westminster St, Suite 201, Providence RI, 02903. 

How did you get started in rare books?

I worked at Cellar Stories Bookstore in Providence, RI off and on for around 10 years. Michael Chandley, the owner, was a great teacher and gave me a solid foundation to build upon and pursue a more serious career in the trade. When he passed away in 2018, I met my good friend and now business partner, Victoria Forsberg-Lary, who was managing the store at the time. I came back on staff to help keep the store afloat, we hit it off, and decided to move forward together with Small Volume when Cellar Stories closed its doors in early 2023. Before we opened, I attended CABS Minnesota, which was really inspiring and really helped me to feel confident moving forward with Small Volume. 

When did you open Small Volume Books and what do you specialize in?

Vic and I officially opened Small Volume in August 2023. Our specialty is pretty eclectic. We have a little bit of everything. We tend to lean towards things created by women and other underrepresented authors but we also have a healthy amount of goofy erotica, stories with dancing potatoes, general humbug, clocks who talk and wear bright red boots…etc.

What do you love about the book trade?

To be honest, It’s getting to dig through really interesting paper media and survive under capitalism without compromising my values, and that is a privilege in so many ways. But that aside, I really love the sense of community and camaraderie. The bookselling community is really supportive of each other, and it’s amazing that I even get to be a part of it. 

Describe a typical day for you:

I have an almost three year old feral toddler so most days begin with me trying to wrangle her into clothes and trying to get her to eat anything other than string cheese. Once that happens, I can check the shop's email for orders and inquiries. If I'm lucky, I can catalog in the evenings when she goes to sleep.  I have childcare on the weekends so that is when I tend to the bulk of the shop upkeep.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

One of the most beautiful books that I've ever handled was a copy of Maria Sibylla Merians’ Insects of Surinam with contemporary hand-colored plates last year at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. More recently, at Small Volume my other favorite book was a copy of Badlands by Robert Herrick. Posthumously published with a note  “Working against time, members of his family made effort in its preparation, but were defeated by the Grim Reaper.” With it being profusely annotated by his son sharing interesting facts around his life and death.  I love when books show signs of being heavily loved by their previous owners.

What do you personally collect?

I am more of a seller than a collector. I really prefer to enjoy them while cataloging and then helping them find their new owner. If anything, I do tend to hold onto fan fiction written by women. I won’t drag you down the 1987 television Beauty and the Beast fanfic rabbit hole in depth right now, but just know that it is intense and vast. That aside I will hang onto ephemera if it is special enough. Nothing of particularly high monetary value. A framed piece of the coat Tiny Tim was wearing when he died, a signed letter and photo that prolific romance author Peggy Gaddis/Dern sent to a fan…things of that nature. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

Well, back in the day when I wasn’t actively working at Cellar Stories, I was curating a film series at the Columbus Theater in Providence and working at a video store that had a great collection of independent and obscure films. For me, books and film are interrelated in a lot of ways, because my interests in film are on par with the kinds of books that I am interested in. So when I am not at Small Volume, I spend a lot of time watching and talking about movies, and I still occasionally co-curate at the Columbus theater. 

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?

I feel encouraged by the amount of diversity that I am seeing. I had this idea that the industry was primarily dominated by older, white men, and when I attended CABS-Minnesota, I was inspired by the number of up and coming young booksellers who were from various backgrounds and identities. I think this is a growing industry, and I am optimistic about the future.  

Any upcoming fairs or catalogs?

We just released our 4th e-list, “Signs of Life….” a collection of books showing evidence of spending time somewhere else with someone else. We are always adding new stock weekly and usually release E-lists on a monthly to bi-monthly basis, and should have our next one available soon.