Where Maine reads

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 29, 2010

"Longfellow is the cornerstone of Portland's literary landscape," says novelist (and occasional Phoenix contributor) Alex Irvine, who's thrown a couple of release parties at the store. "They've built themselves into this community, and the community has responded. . . . It's a testament to Chris and Stuart's dedication that the store has survived, thrived, and become the focus of book culture in the Portland area."


"The difference between today and 15 years ago is that 15 years ago you could just sell books," Platt says. "Today you have to sell much more than books."

Or sell them a different way.

If Amazon was a problem for Bookland 10 years ago, its influence has only grown." They're an empire," Bowe says. There's only one thing to do, from the indie perspective — acknowledge Amazon's looming power, then try to harness it in ways that work for the store. Longfellow does that in two ways. First, staffers occasionally use Amazon the same way they use other distributors — to locate and order books for customers.

And, since June, Longfellow has been using Amazon Marketplace to sell used books — obscure ones that might not otherwise sell in the store. In three months, the store has made more than $2000 off this experimental venture. It's not a significant part of Longfellow's used-books operation, but it allows the store's book-buyers to give customers store credit for strange, niche, or academic titles.

Much more evolved is Longfellow's in-store used-book infrastructure, which has become a major part of its business model, bringing in new customers and expanding the store's reach. Honing and expanding this sector is Longfellow's next big step, as Gerson says, which is a local example of a regional and national trend.

It made news last month when national chain Books-A-Million opened its first used-book (and -movie, and -videogame) emporium in Birmingham, Alabama. Books, Etc., in Falmouth, is focusing on its used-book business as well, says owner Allan Schmid, and it's a big part of Nonesuch's pie as well.

"Used books help us broaden our inventory," Platt says. "And it gives customers an opportunity to have a different relationship with us" — where purchaser becomes supplier.

In its piece about the Books-A-Million development, the Birmingham Business Journal quoted Michael Norris, a senior analyst with the Connecticut-based market research firm Simba Information: "[U]sed bookstores are a profitable business if inventory is controlled and the atmosphere is right."

Or, as Bowe puts it, "if you're not out there selling books every way you can, you can't keep your doors open."

When book sales are stagnant, as they are according to the Association of American Publishers, which reported overall decreases in 2008 and 2009 and only modest gains so far in 2010, every last dollar counts — and many of those dollars come from discounted used books.

"Those books have much higher margins," says Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. Selling used books provides "a good combination of giving your customers the books they're looking for and making a good profit."

Little sweat is shed about the other behemoths: the chain bookstores. "The chains are less of a threat — we find ourselves worrying about e-books and Amazon much more than Borders or Barnes and Noble," Bowe says. "They're struggling . . ." Just as much? "If not more so," he says, sounding surprised himself.

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