June 24, 2018
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Independent bookstores develop niches in changing times

By Dale McGarrigle, Special to the BDN

BANGOR – It’s like taking a step back to a more genteel time.

Shelf after shelf of books, full of new people and new worlds waiting to be discovered, with a familiar face ready to serve as a guide — and time and space for a leisurely perusal.

This wonderland is the local, independent bookstore, unfortunately a business well on its way to becoming a myth in an era of online shopping and big-box stores. Between 2001 and 2013, the number of bookstores in Maine dropped from more than 90 to just more than 40, according to figures from the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

Four veteran booksellers recently talked about the secrets to their businesses’ longevity.

A man walks into a bar

Books always have been part of Eric Furry’s life. He just didn’t always know that, for the past 40 years, books would be his life.

For more than 33 years, Furry, 64, has been the smiling face of Pro Libris, a used bookstore at 10 Third St. in Bangor. The secret to his success: “My winning personality,” Furry said with a self-deprecating smile.

Furry had worked for the B. Dalton bookstore chain for nine years before he had an epiphany one night when he stopped into Benjamin’s after work: “There was this big burly guy reading Sylvia Plath at the bar. I found out he was a used book dealer. I bought my initial inventory from him.”

Pro Libris stocks around 30,000 fiction and non-fiction titles in more than 30 categories, with mystery, science fiction, literature, and romance the best sellers.

“I think I have a pretty good store,” Furry said modestly. “There’s something for a broad range of readers.”

Furry estimated that his store’s best years were 10 to 15 years ago, when he sold close to 50,000 books a year. Last year, that number was less than 20,000.

He admits that he hasn’t changed how he does business over the decades. He tried selling online, but decided “I don’t think there’s much profit to be made there. I prefer the face-to-face.”

Still Furry is content. He explained that he owned his building and has a “nice-sized” IRA and could draw Social Security.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m still running Pro Libris 20 years from now,” he said.

Mainely Maine oriented

For more than 20 years, BookMarc’s, on the corner of Central and Harlow streets in downtown Bangor, has been the place to go for Maine-oriented books.

Owner Marc Berlin explained, “We’re a general bookstore with an inventory weighted toward state of Maine cultural and historical themes and as many Maine authors as we can afford, since the beginning. A lot of customers look to us for that.”

BookMarc’s started out selling entirely new books, but has been phasing in used and out-of-print books through the years, to the point where the ratio is now 50-50, and Berlin expects the number of used books to go higher. Fiction was more popular at first, but non-fiction is now gaining.

What has worked for BookMarc’s? “Our relatively small size and lower overhead,” Berlin said. “We’re closer to our customers, more customer-oriented. Also, despite the parking complaints, being downtown helps somewhat. During the summer, a lot of people passing through like to come downtown. There are people who stop here every year.”

Berlin also praised his staff: “I’ve been fortunate in having terrific employees over the years who are very interested in customer service. They’ve really extended themselves in helping customers find the books they’re looking for. I’ve learned from my employees and my staff, and that’s part of the fun of it.”

Adjacent to Berlin’s store is BookMarc’s Cafe, which he originally ran, but is now an independent business. He explained that its impact depends on the time of year: “It matters a lot over the holidays. But it’s usually a lunchtime crowd, when people have limited time, so there’s not a lot of spillover.”

Berlin is now trying to grow his online business, which accounts for about 3 percent of his sales, mainly to out-of-state customers.

Berlin seems uncertain what the future holds for his business.

“The book business is changing so much,” he said. “I think there will still be books in 20 years, but I’m not sure there will be bookstores. But I can’t see myself doing anything else. I’ve loved it since I opened the store. I can’t imagine another way of life.”

Under new ownership

A Portland bookstore that has become a downtown fixture arose from the figurative ashes of another such business.

Longfellow Books, at 1 Monument Square, was originally part of the regional Bookland chain. When Bookland went out of business 13 years ago, employees Chris Bowe and Stuart Gerson bought the downtown location.

Longfellow has thrived by becoming a focal point for the community, Bowe explained.

“We’ve done a damn good job of paying attention to the local community and local writers,” he said.

Also, Gerson was among the leaders of the buy-local movement in Portland. “People have become more aware of the importance of buying local, to keep the community strong,” Bowe said. “Also when Borders went out of business, people came to value having a bookseller in town. The community wants us to succeed.”

Bowe added that “being small and nimble enables us to respond quickly to what’s happening in the book world.”

Customer service is at the core of what Longfellow is about. “It’s critical to what we do,” Bowe said. “We have people who are experts in certain categories, and we know our customers. For example, a brother wanted to order a book for his sister. We knew that she had already bought the book, so we suggested another one instead.”

Bowe sees book-selling continuing to be his future.

“I’ve been selling books since I was in college, and it’s what I love to do,” he said. “It’s fulfilling. At the end of the day, you can feel good about what you do.”

Oh, the books you’ll see

For almost three decades, The Briar Patch, at 27 Central St. in Bangor, has been a place for children and their parents to discover fun.

The store, which moved to its much larger, current location from Broad Street in 1997, emphasizes children’s books and creative playthings, along with young adult and adult books. Books make up 65-70 percent of inventory, according to Cathy Anderson, who has owned The Briar Patch for the past 18 years.

Anderson said her store enjoyed its best-ever sales year in 2013. She understands that part of that success is, “We have a niche. Once people who buy children’s books come here, they realize what a comprehensive selection we have, and they usually come back.”

The Briar Patch has changed with the times. Anderson is making a concerted social-media marketing push and is developing a Web site. But another advantage is more old-fashioned. “We’ve got a knowledge base that you can’t get from Amazon or a big-box store,” she said.

Anderson also credits her location. “Downtown Bangor has been on the upswing for several years,” she said. “Young people are investing time and energy down here. Also people have grown more aware about shopping at local, independent stores”

By her store’s very nature, Anderson’s clientele is transitory to a degree.

“I lose customers when their kids grow up, although many realize we have items for all ages,” she said. “But then I get new customers and others come back, when they have grandchildren.”

Anderson is uncertain how long she will continue to run The Briar Patch.

“That varies day to day,” she said. “I’d like my [1 ½-year-old] granddaughter to have a memory of the store, so I figure four more years. That would also put me at retirement age. But I wouldn’t want to close it. I want it to continue to be a part of downtown.”

For more information, call Pro Libris at 942-3019, BookMarc’s at 942-3206, Longfellow Books at 772-4045, or The Briar Patch at 941-0255.

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Michael E. York Photo

The colorful entrance to BookMarc’s in downtown Bangor displays the bookstore’s logo and name.

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BDN File Photo by Seth Koenig

Customers browse the selection inside Longfellow Books in Portland in March 2012. The bookstore is owned by Chris Bowe and Stuart Gerson.

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Michael E. York Photo

Cathy Anderson owns The Briar Patch on Central Street in Bangor.

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Michael E. York Photo

Books written by Maine authors are displayed on the shelves in the Maine authors’ section at The Briar Patch, located at 27 Central St., Bangor.

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Michael E. York Photo

Shelves of books line the shelves in the young adult section at The Briar Patch, 27 Central St., Bangor.

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