June 25, 2018
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Death of a Bookstore

Down East Maine faces a serious loss when Port in a Storm, a bookstore nestled on the shore of Somes Sound on Mount Desert Island, closes its doors on Jan. 18. The shop is a victim of revolutionary changes in the book business and in reading habits.

Jan Coates bought the store in 1999 and has operated it as a gathering place for book lovers and a venue for authors’ readings. She told the Bangor Daily News, “It’s been a wonderful journey. One goes into the book industry because you love books. It’s been a struggle of the head and the heart.”

Significantly, a few of the comments on the news story were by people who had admired the shop but never had gone in. They probably bought their books from Amazon or the big chains.

Through the years, Ms. Coates tried to adapt to economic and cultural changes including the Internet, the emergence of big-box and discount stores and a general decrease in reading. But, she said, “Sometimes that is not enough.”

Technological changes have transformed the industry. When she bought the business from Linda Lewis, who had founded it and operated it for seven years, she found the old microfiche system, with its scanner and tiny monthly lists of current books. The store already had switched to a computer to locate books and order them.

Business practices changed, too. The publishers are all in trouble and some are laying off employees and refusing to accept new manuscripts. They had begun adding surcharges and imposing restocking fees on the return of unsold books, new trouble for a small and shrinking enterprise.

The changes affected her clients even more. While older patrons remained avid readers, many younger ones were turning to online buying and online books — if they still read books at all. Publishers Weekly reported this month that readers between 18 and 28 was the only group where the Internet was its top source for book purchases.

Ms. Coates has not decided whether to reopen next spring her seasonal book tore, Port Side, in Bass Harbor in the village of Bernard, with its lighthouse tower and wall decorated with wooden lobster traps.

She plans, among other things, to continue her Island Readers and Writers program, which brings authors and readers from the offshore islands together for reading and discussion. Books always will be important to her.

The old building that has housed Port in a Storm has been owned by the Fernald family since three Fernald brothers bought it in about 1920. It was a general store for many years. On the second floor, at various times, were a funeral parlor, an ice house, a dance hall and a meeting place for the Masons and other groups. Its future is uncertain.

So, sad to say, is the future of the book business, which always has been an essential tool of the education process.

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