PORTLAND, Maine — Bookstores in Maine, like many locally owned small businesses, are struggling to remain viable.
In the last decade, more than two dozen independent booksellers have closed up shop across the state. Coupled with economic challenges, bookselling in the 21st century is continually evolving.
While the story of print’s demise is a popular one, some of the state’s better-known and established bookstores are surviving — and even expanding to new locations.
Maine’s oldest bookstore, Sherman’s Books & Stationery, which traces its lineage back to 1886, has recently opened a fifth store, located in the heart of Portland. The newest Sherman’s, located at 49 Exchange St., brings a retail book presence back to the Old Port area, which had been lacking one since Books Etc. closed in 2009.
Jeff Curtis, a second-generation bookstore owner, began selling books in 1989, when he opened his own Sherman’s store in Boothbay Harbor. This will be his 25th anniversary in the business. The idea to open a Portland location originated with his daughter, Tori.
Tori, who attended college in Boston and was working in marketing, had started thinking about opening a store of her own. She looked at places in Boston; her dad suggested Portland as a possible, more realistic location.
“She had gotten the entrepreneurial bug and started talking about wanting to open a bookstore,” he said. “She called and said, ‘I’m looking at a place on Newbury Street in 15 minutes. What kind of questions should I ask?’ I gave her some questions and things to consider,” he said.
Curtis said it wasn’t long before Tori was calling back.
“‘Hey Dad, I found a great spot in the Old Port. Do you want to look at it with me?’” Curtis said his daughter told him. “I agreed to go, but I thought I was just humoring her; when I saw it, I thought, ‘yeah, this might work.’”
The new Sherman’s opened this week, with the official grand opening scheduled for April 12.
When asked about the future of bookstores and Sherman’s growth, Curtis indicated he is cautiously optimistic about the chain’s growth and a store presence in Portland.
“A lot of people still read,” he said. “If anything, new vehicles, like e-books, maybe other integrated platforms will increase readership; I don’t see it as a zero-sum game. We’re finding that people still enjoy print books.”
Sherman’s isn’t the only new bookstore in Portland. Letterpress Books, located in Portland’s Northgate Plaza, off outer Washington Avenue, opened in October. Northgate hasn’t had a bookstore as a tenant since the Bookland chain closed in 2002.
“We’ve gotten such a warm welcome to the neighborhood,” said Karen Bakshoian, one of three family members who own the small, but well-stocked store.
Longfellow Books, with its prominent location in the heart of Portland’s downtown at historic Monument Square, has been a beacon for book buyers wanting to buy local.
When asked about Sherman’s as a competitor, co-owner Chris Bowe indicated that he welcomed having another independent bookstore in the city.
“I’ve been a fan of bookstores long before I was a bookstore owner,” Bowe said. “I’m going to welcome him [Curtis] to the neighborhood. I view us as comrades and I’m always willing to work with a fellow local, independent store owner.”
Outside of Portland, independent booksellers are becoming harder to find. When the Mr. Paperback chain ceased operations in 2011, it meant that many communities were left without a brick-and-mortar book presence.
Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe, located on Damariscotta’s Main Street, has been selling books in the community since 1964. Current owner Susan Porter began with Maine Coast in 1973, as one of the store’s managers.
She acquired ownership with two other partners in the mid-1980s, and took full ownership of the store in 2000.
Porter attributes her success to experience and getting started during what she refers to as “the golden age of bookstores.”
“The biggest game-changer has been large online booksellers like Amazon,” said Porter. “They, along with the larger chains, can sell books at such a deep discount that stores like ours can’t and remain in business.”
“The economy and also, the changes in books — like e-books; all of this has happened in a period of about five or six years,” Porter said.
Bookstores such as Sherman’s, Longfellow Books, Maine Coast and newer stores like Letterpress are owned by people who love books, care about their communities and give back to them. At the same time, remaining viable in the book business requires savvy and being able to adapt.
“We’re fortunate to be in a town like Damariscotta,” said Porter. “Our customers have been loyal and we’re looking at expanding into some sideline items that they won’t be able to find elsewhere,” indicates Porter.
Jim Baumer, a freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.