The start was inauspicious and borne from bankruptcy. In May 2000, the Bookland chain filed for Chapter 11. (Even then, Bookland attorney Robert Keach "attributed Bookland's problems to 'big box competition that is beginning to move into secondary markets' . . . He used the 'e' word, noting increased competition from e-retailers such as Amazon.com," a Publisher's Weekly article reported.) Bowe and Gerson, Bookland employees who helped shepherd the 13-bookstore chain through the process of selling stores and inventory, realized that they might soon be out of work.
They started batting around the idea of striking out on their own, of opening their own store in Bookland's downtown Portland location. The pieces fell into place quickly. By October 1, 2000, they were in business as Longfellow Books (Gerson wanted to somehow incorporate Portland's best-known literary figure into the store's branding; Bowe was the one to suggest naming the place after him).
It wasn't the smoothest transition. "It was nuts," Bowe says with a shake of his head, and Gerson chimes in, nodding enthusiastically: "It was really intense."
"We had to resurrect a store that was dying," Bowe explains. Indeed, the One Monument Way spot had not been one of Bookland's most successful — the inventory was skeletal, and Congress Street was dead.
But something about their formula worked. As business partners, "we're complementary in our talents," Gerson says, tactfully acknowledging that the pair is a study in contrasts — in height, personality, age, and even taste in books, the two men are quite different.
"The one area where we are always in sync is our love of books and bookselling and our sense of the nobility of it," Gerson says.
"I think Stuart and I both feel a big responsibility, especially for the Portland writers," Bowe says. And promoting local talent pays off at the cash register, too: "The local is very important here." The store is a founding member of Portland's Buy Local campaign.
"We both feel very committed to being a place where local writers can plan on being showcased and welcomed," Gerson adds.
For Nonesuch co-owner Jon Platt, the key is knowing which authors will best connect with customers. He mentions local favorites such as Monica Wood, Hannah Holmes, and Jeannie Brett as being especially well-loved among Nonesuchers. Having such insight into the community is the ultimate form of customer service, he says.
"You have to work to have a higher level of service and a higher level of commitment to building loyalty with your customers," Platt says. Doing so establishes trust between the reader (book-buyer), writer (book-producer), and book-seller.
Earlier this year, Longfellow Books decided to highlight Maine author Lily King's Father of the Rain — a harrowing tale of fractured familial love, alcoholism, and personal growth — by promoting it in their newsletter, talking it up among regular customers, and prominently displaying copies in the store. "We sold the hell out of that book," Bowe says. It was the store's third-best seller in September and will likely fare well in the 2010 overall standings. The book has been featured in Elle and Oprah magazines and the Washington Post, among other places; Gerson and Bowe feel proud to have been ahead of the curve. King's author appearance at the store last month drew close to 80 people; the store hosts several such events each month.