Readers, writers and casual coffee drinkers bask in the sunlight that filters through the windows of Rock City Books & Coffee. With a ground-level view of pedestrians ambling down Main Street in Rockland, and the toasty, dark scent of roasted coffee lingering in the air, patrons often find themselves spending extra time browsing, buying and simply hanging out in the bookstore and cafe.
It has become a social hub for Rockland since Susanne Ward and Patrick Reilley opened it in 1992, under the original name Second Read, as a used bookstore and coffee roastery.
A month from now, the look of Rock City will change a bit, as will part of the ownership and the name. But the atmosphere of relaxed camaraderie and love of good books and good coffee likely will remain if Lacy Simons has anything to say about it.
Earlier this year, Ward offered Simons a chance to purchase the bookstore part of the business from her. Simons, who has worked for Rock City as a barista, a bookseller and finally the bookstore manager, jumped at the chance, but had to get creative about finding a way to make it happen. Three months and nearly $5,000 in donations later, she’s poised to buy and operate the business she has called home since 2003.
“I feel like this is something that I’ve been kind of working toward my whole life,” said Simons, a 34-year-old native of Readfield. “Rock City is my home. That it all happened this way is just amazing. It’s really affirming.”
Ward and Reilley operated the business for 18 years together; Ward handling the books, Reilley roasting the coffee. In May 2010, however, Patrick Reilley lost a long battle against cancer, sending shock waves through the Rock City family. That loss, combined with the difficult time all brick-and-mortar bookstores face with competition from Amazon.com and the rapid rise of e-readers, made 2010 a difficult year. By January 2011, it was clear that running both a bookstore and a coffee roastery and cafe was just too much work for one person to handle, and that the business would need to be split into two. Ward approached Simons with an idea.
“I saw my choices as either having a giant fire sale or finding someone who might want to take on the challenge of a 21st century bookstore. And as Lacy is smart, talented, creative, savvy and fresh, I didn’t have far to look,” said Ward in an email. “I truly believe her passion for the business and her natural entrepreneurial spirit will guide her to a success I could never achieve with all the other demands of my business.”
Simons took a few days to mull the offer and returned with a resounding yes.
“I was extremely moved by her offer,” said Simons. “It was a really emotional thing for me. I knew what it meant to her. It speaks to her faith in me. She’s a kind and dear person, but she is very serious about her business. She’s placing it in my hands. I’m honored.”
The only glitch? Simons had little to show banks that would offer her a loan. She doesn’t own a house. She’s saddled with a large debt of student loans, especially after an Master in Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont. She spent three years in between her first stint at Rock City (2003-2006) and her current stint (from 2009 to present) as the managing editor at the nonprofit Alice James Books, a poetry press at the University of Maine at Farmington. She was an AmeriCorps volunteer. All noble callings; none likely to afford someone a comfortable savings account.
“It had never occurred to me that I might be a business owner. It seemed like a magical thing that grownups do,” said Simons. “I don’t have a rich uncle. I had no real savings. Certainly not enough to show a bank that I’m a safe bet, even if I’m fully capable.”
To solve this problem, Simons turned to her social media know-how. She started a campaign in March that, like a Kickstarter campaign, called on fans of Rock City and supporters of indie bookstores to donate any amount of money they wished to the goal of helping Simons buy the store. Simons set a goal of $5,000 by April 30; she kicked off the campaign March 3.
Through Twitter, Simons has built a great deal of connections in both the book blogging and publishing worlds. Sites such as Shelf Awareness, the Book Lady’s Blog, HTMLGiant, Moby Lives and the Reading Ape have linked to her cause; podcasts such as Bookrageous have mentioned it; and helpful Twitter friends have re-tweeted her message. By April 11, $4,000 had been raised. Simons is hoping to get the final $1,000 by the end of the month.
“We’ve had some local people, but overwhelmingly it’s been from people who have never even been to the store,” said Simons. “I think people tend to think of Twitter and Facebook as being kind of impersonal, but when random strangers entrust their money to you because they support your cause, it feels really personal and organic. You really do feel connected.”
If all goes well, ownership of the bookstore will be transferred to Simons in mid-May. At that time, she’ll change the name of the store to Hello Hello. She’ll also change the look of the space a bit, moving some bookshelves and erecting a movable wall. That way, there will be more separation between the cafe and the shop, so browsers can browse freely, without diners and the cafe’s music and spoken word performers interfering.
Simons also will focus on getting more new books in and increasing gifts and other forms of merchandise. Ward still will operate the cafe and roastery as Rock City Coffee.
“It’s Rock City 2.0,” Simons said. “It’ll look different, but it’ll still be the same, in a sense.”
For Ward, parting ways with the bookstore will be painful — but she is confident that the spirit of Rock City won’t change all that much, once it’s in Simons’ hands.
“My husband and I believed that if we provided a place that could be a focal point for creativity and conversation, for learning and contemplating, people would come,” said Ward. “It’s not really Rock City, per se, that makes it so popular. We merely provided the props of a building with coffee, food and books. It’s the people who come to the store who make it what it is. That includes the amazing parade of people who have worked for us these last 19 years.”
Making a pledge at one of the four book-related levels on the campaign site means that if at the end of the second year of business for Hello Hello, Simons is still holding on and reasonably solvent, Simons will donate the same amount pledged to a charity of your choice, and in your name, as a thank you for helping.