The announcement came late last month. Mr. Paperback, the popular bookstore chain that has been a fixture in Maine for 50 years, would go out of business at the end of April because of a shaky economy and technological advances that have changed the public’s reading habits and siphoned off customers.
“Business is not great. It seemed like a good time to get out,” said Mr. Paperback’s general manager, Jim McCree. “Most of us know that the book business and anything in print is not a particularly healthy place to be.” The decision came less than a year after national book chain Borders closed 399 stores, including several in Maine.
Then, just two weeks later, another shocker involving the print media: For the same basic reasons the bookstores were going out of business, the owner of four Maine weekly newspapers in the midcoast area announced that the papers had ceased publication.
“The media industry is struggling worldwide. The entire industry is trying to figure out how to sustain professional journalism,” said Richard Anderson, founder of Village NetMedia which owns the papers — the Village Soup Gazette in Rockland, Village Soup Journal in Belfast, the Bar Harbor Times and the Capital Weekly in Augusta — as well as the online villagesoup.com, which also shut down.
Anderson started his online operation in 1997 and expanded to open two newspapers — the Knox County Times in Rockland in 2003 and Waldo County Citizen in Belfast in 2004. He closed those papers upon acquiring Rockland’s Courier-Gazette, the Camden Herald, the Bar Harbor Times and the Capital Weekly in 2008, the same year he purchased and closed the Waldo Independent of Belfast.
The Republican Journal of Belfast, predecessor to the Village Soup Journal, was founded in 1829 and was the grand old lady of the lot. The Courier-Gazette dated to 1846, the Camden Herald to 1870 and the Bar Harbor Times to 1914.
As might be expected, the demise of newspapers of such long service to the midcoast area has been Topic A in many a conversation in the region since Anderson’s startling announcement. By midweek there was hope that several of the papers might soon be resurrected by Reade Brower, owner of The Free Press, a weekly newspaper founded in 1985 to serve Knox, Waldo and Lincoln counties. Brower reportedly had signed a letter of intent to purchase assets of Village NetMedia.
And so the casualties in the print media mount, each loss of publication lamented by older readers even as younger ones — weaned on the whiz-bang gadgetry of the rapidly evolving electronic information age — purposefully shun the joys of discovery possible in traditional books and newspapers.
While on my daily walk recently, I was stopped by a couple of longtime friends for a chat at the side of the road. When the conversation turned to the Mr. Paperback closing and the popularity of online books and blogs and such, we agreed that cozying up to an impersonal computerized version of a book or newspaper hardly compares to the comforts of spending time with the real thing.
“That’s because we’re old-school,” the better half of the couple remarked, and I suppose that’s true. But in our old-school obstinacy we have some pretty high-octane company.
“I cannot live without books,” former President Thomas Jefferson disclosed in a letter to former President John Adams in June of 1815.
Were he around today in our time of infatuation with all things digital, Jefferson might explain that he was talking about real books, printed on paper. The kind of book you can hold in your hands, misjudge by its cover, lend to a friend with no hope of ever getting it back, place a bookmark between the pages of, spill coffee on, fall asleep over or use as a doorstop and it still will remain a loyal friend.
Somewhat earlier Jefferson had famously written that he wouldn’t much care to live in a world without newspapers, either. In a letter to Col. Edward Carrington in 1787, he wrote:
“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
A founding father’s strong words hint at the difficulties that might lie in store for the country should too many of its newspapers one day cease to publish.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.