December 07, 2019
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Turning the page: Indie bookstore owners prepare to pass the torch

Mainers love their local bookstores. The small neighborhood and downtown shops stock a choice selection of new and classic titles, reflecting the literary tastes of the owners as well as the buying habits of regular customers. Multiple generations patronize the local bookshop, as parents and grandparents introduce the younger set to the pleasures of a leisurely browse among the quiet shelves and the satisfaction of going home with an enticing new read.

Book shops have weathered big changes in recent years, but booksellers say trends are working in their favor and business is steady. Even so, no one expects to get rich in this low-margin business. Most owners admit they have a secondary source of income and are content if their stores break even at the end of the month.

“There’s a sense of happiness that comes with this business. It’s not just about the income,” said Bangor resident Gibran Graham, 42, who is poised to purchase an iconic downtown store next year. “Happiness is at least half the payback.”

It’s hard to say just how many independent bookstores there are in Maine — probably somewhere around 40, though many gift shops, antique stores and other retailers also feature a selection of new or used books. However, this much is true: Maine’s community bookshops are in transition as the current generation of owners prepares to pass the torch to someone new. The good news is that bookstores have established a beloved presence in Maine’s downtowns, and eager new owners are not hard to find.

Weathering the storm

For years, small booksellers have struggled against Goliath-sized forces, including the emergence of big-box retailers such as Borders, which is now defunct, Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble, the popularity of eBook readers such as the Kindle and the unbeatable inventory and doorstep delivery systems of Amazon and other online stores. But those challenges have largely plateaued, and the local bookstore is reclaiming its cachet and its customer base, according to Josh Christie, a buyer for Sherman’s Books & Stationery — which boasts six Maine locations, including its Bar Harbor flagship — and a former board member of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.

“The strength of the buy-local movement has really helped,” Christie said. In addition, he said, the improving national economy and the decline of the big chain stores are supporting a smooth transition in Maine bookstores that augurs well for the next generation of readers and browsers.

Independent booksellers work hard to build a base of dedicated customers who see value in supporting a local business. In addition to offering breadth and depth in their inventories, bookshops often provide comfortable seating and good lighting to encourage lingering. They may offer coffee, tea and a light menu of snacks for the peckish. They host children’s story hours, book signings and launch parties for new publications. They cheerfully order any volume they don’t have on their own shelves. Some offer after-hours reading clubs, poetry slams, literacy groups, cooking classes and craft sessions, all aimed at building customer loyalty and selling a few more copies of a featured book.

In Bangor, Cathy Anderson, 63, is planning her exit strategy as the longtime owner of The Briar Patch, one of just a few bookstores in Maine dedicated to children’s reading materials, creative playthings and art supplies.

“I’m in my mid-60s. My husband has been retired for several years, and we have other things to do,” Anderson said in a conversation this week. And, she added, “I just don’t have the energy for it anymore. I used to be able to say I had read about 75 percent of what was in the store, but now there are so many new books out there I have to rely on book reviews and the recommendations of the sales representatives when I order. I can’t keep up with it.”

Fortunately, Anderson didn’t have to look far to find an enthusiastic buyer for the business she has nurtured for the last 21 years. Graham has worked at the store for the past five years, supplementing other income sources and indulging his lifelong affinity for the world of books and literature. When Anderson confided her interest in finding a buyer, Graham, who also sits on the Bangor City Council, was ready to talk turkey.

They’re still researching the options, but it seems likely Anderson will help finance Graham’s purchase of the business and the inventory. “I want to facilitate his success,” Anderson said. “I hope to be able to offer better terms than a bank would offer.” They expect the transition to take effect next year at this time.

Outside income helps pay the bills

In Bath, The Mustard Seed bookstore has been open for only a year. But the store, owned by 58-year-old Julie Shea, is built on the strong foundations of the Bath Book Shop, a fixture on Front Street since 1999.

“The owner was ready to retire, and I was ready to open a store,” Shea said. “It was something I always dreamed of doing.” She worked up a business plan, took out a loan and bought the business and the inventory, moving a few doors down the street to larger space where she could include a tea shop.

Because Shea and her husband are retired, they’re not dependent on the store for their livelihood. “I’m not sure we’d be able to meet all our needs,” relying on revenue from the store, she said.

Further down the coast in the college town of Brunswick, poet and publisher Gary Lawless, who co-owns the Gulf of Maine bookstore with his wife, Beth Leonard, says both of them have worked at “outside” jobs ever since they opened in 1979. Beth’s full-time work with the U.S. Postal Service was what paid their household bills many months, as the store’s fortunes rose and fell over the years.

With the store doing a steady if not exactly booming business, Lawless, now 64, said they have begun to think seriously about selling the store and retiring. “I’d really like to do some traveling before I start to fall apart,” he said.

A few people have expressed some interest in taking over at Gulf of Maine, he said, but there have been no serious discussions yet.

“Most people just tell us they expect us to stay on for another 30 years,” Lawless said with a laugh. “And I say, ‘What are you thinking? You really want to come in here when I’m 95?’”

Books and community — the real upside of the business

Longfellow Books in Portland’s Monument Square may be one of the largest and most popular independent bookstores in Maine, but owner Ari Gersen, 39, says it still provides all the personal service and community functions of a smaller store.

He spends his days packing and unpacking books, putting books away, talking about books, recommending books, planning how to get more books into the hands of his book-loving customers.

“If you don’t enjoy doing that kind of stuff, there’s really no upside to having a bookstore,” he said. “You can’t get rich doing this. No one buys or opens a bookstore with dreams of retiring to the Caribbean. It’s really a lifestyle choice.”

Gersen took the reins at Longfellow Books about a year ago, after his father, Stuart Gersen, who established the business in 2000, died following a long illness. He said the Portland community was extremely supportive during his father’s illness and even launched a fundraiser after a broken water pipe flooded the store and destroyed much of the inventory. “They wanted to be sure that Longfellow Books was able to replace the stock, pay the staff and pay the rent,” he said. “I realized then that this store really meant something to the community.”

Gerson, who grew up steeped in the culture of the book business, said keeping the store open honors his father’s long commitment to the Portland community as well as Portland’s abiding support of the independent bookstore.

Back in Bangor, Graham is looking ahead to a bright future for The Briar Patch. With a background in online marketing and social media, he expects to make a few changes but not many. He’ll maintain the high-quality inventory and steer clear of trendy tie-in merchandise drawn from popular movies and television. Developing a website is on his agenda, with the possibility of being able to sell books online.

Mostly, he said, he’ll focus on maintaining and growing the store’s presence as a destination for children and their families, drawing business to Bangor’s creative downtown district.

“Every downtown needs a bookstore,” Graham said. “It’s a cultural beacon for the community.”

 



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