It’s almost as an aside when hello hello books owner Lacy Simons mentions in conversation that this year marks 10 years of owning the tiny bookshop that’s tucked in the back of a cafe in downtown Rockland.
It seems like a surreal time to be celebrating an anniversary. Simons is still trying to navigate running a small business during a global pandemic and processing the recent news that another bookstore will be opening this summer across town.
But all in all, she’s optimistic. The community of book lovers that has grown around hello hello books in the last decade rallied around the store when the business pivoted to mostly online sales during the pandemic, helping to keep it afloat.
“The idea that on the other end of this are people who have been patient and compassionate and excited for us to continue to be a community resource, is a pretty great feeling,” Simons said. “Overall, I’m just really happy to be in Rockland; I couldn’t have made it anywhere else.”
While Simons hasn’t yet planned anything to mark the anniversary, she’s just grateful that sometime ― hopefully soon ― hello hello books will operate once again as the “organism” she set out to create.
Simons opened hello hello books in the 800-square-foot space at the back of Rock City Cafe in 2011, when the coffee shop moved to its current location on Main Street and rebranded from Rock City Books and Coffee. Until 2011, the coffee shop, formerly known as Second Read Books and Coffee, also operated as a secondhand bookstore.
With the owner of Rock City wanting to focus more on the cafe side of things, Simons ― who worked at Rock City Books and Coffee ― took the opportunity to purchase the book side of the business and open her own store.
Simons kept the secondhand tradition going with hello hello books, carrying a robust inventory of used books. But she has also pivoted, especially in the last several years, to focus on new books as well.
As a mission-driven bookstore, the curation of books at hello hello books gives a large spotlight to authors who write about social justice issues. In addition to curating numerous suggested reading lists related to social justice, hello hello books has also run a social justice reading and action group for several years, Simons said.
When the Black Lives Matter movement spurred many people to seek out books related to anti-racism as well as racial injustice and inequality, Rockland-area readers were able to find many titles related to the topic already in stock locally at hello hello books.
“When we started to be even louder about the things that are important to us as an organization and put more material and time behind it, we definitely lost people,” Simons said. “I know that it’s off-putting to a lot of potential customers, but it also completely enriched our relationships with so many existing customers in ways that we didn’t expect. That has made it feel even more worth it.”
It’s also gained them national attention. The New York Times interviewed Simons for a 2017 story on how independent bookstores were playing a role in spurring political action in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. In 2019, hello hello books was one of five book stores nationally named as a finalist for Publisher’s Weekly Bookstore of the Year award.
For a small city of 7,000 people, Rockland is lucky to have a bookstore like hello hello books, according to David Gogel, executive director of Rockland Main Street Inc.
“Over the last 10 years, they’ve really used the bookshop as a platform, both to reflect the change that they want to see in the world and as a way to share this message of what books can be,” Gogel said. “We are really, really lucky because Lacy and the team work so hard to make it a place where everyone is welcome, but they have such a high taste level and their curation is amazing.”
Despite the success the shop has seen over the last 10 years, nothing could have prepared Simons and her small team for how the COVID-19 pandemic would force the business to change.
Since hello hello books is only 800-square-feet, in-person shopping has largely been out of the question over the last year. In the fall they offered limited, appointment-only shopping sessions; however, as online orders increased around the holidays and cases spiked, they stopped offering them towards the end of 2020. Otherwise, their business has been run completely online.
For most of the last year, it was just Simons and one other employee working. At times she said it was completely overwhelming due to the more complex system of receiving and sending out orders, as well as the shipping delays that occurred around the holidays.
But with some federal loan assistance and consistent customer support, hello hello books was able to keep going.
“Given all that, it’s pretty amazing that we’re still here,” Simons said. “We couldn’t have done it without our customers. A lot of that was just emotional support, just people taking the time to go through our more complicated ordering system rather than a one-click online purchase.”
Over the last year, the pivot to online sales was the biggest challenge for independent bookstores, according to Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.
For years, the association has been urging its members to create a website if they did not already have one, Ineson said.
Thankfully, hello hello books already had a website going into the pandemic.
“If you look at hello hello [books] in particular, they were very nimble in their pivot online and they were very creative. I think hello hello is emblematic of some of the smartest bookstores in the county in terms of how they made that pivot,” Ineson said.
It was a slight learning curve for customers to get used to buying books through the site, Simons said. In addition to books, hello hello books also began selling other items the store carries online, like puzzles, candles and stickers.
hello hello books is currently transitioning out of online-only sales to offering limited appointment-only shopping at the end of May. By the beginning of July, Simons is hopeful they will be able to open the store to customers for general shopping, but with a restricted capacity limit.
This summer, Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop will be opening a location just up Route 1 from hello hello books. It will be the first time Simons has had another bookstore to compete with since the Reading Corner closed in 2014.
While Simons wishes she had been given a heads-up, she’s not that worried about competing with Sherman’s given the niche she has carved out within the community. After all, she said, there’s a reason hello hello books’ motto has been “small but powerful” since 2011.
“I feel like our littleness and the amount of heart space that people in this community have given us, if we can keep that fire burning, then whatever happens and however much we have to change, we will have people who are with us no matter what and that is an extraordinary thing to get to say,” Simons said.