Where Maine reads

A decade into Portland's indie-bookstore movement, brick-and-mortar shops are holding their own
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 29, 2010


Perhaps the most exciting part of my day working at Longfellow Books was The Spider Incident, which involved said arachnid emerging from a potted plant around 10:30 am to terrorize staff members and scurry, unscathed, underneath a shelf.

Or at least, that was the most action-packed moment. It was much more exhilarating — albeit in a different way — when I discovered, while shelving used books, a paperback copy of Gregory Maguire's Wicked, which is on my short list for winter reading, and a hardcover copy of Jane Yolen's Once Upon a Time (She Said), a book of tales, poems, and essays that I'd never heard of but moved immediately to the top of that list. And I have to admit I squealed when I saw that the new Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary had arrived and was waiting quietly downstairs for its next-day shelf date. And that I actually enjoyed shelving books, figuring out the puzzle of what book goes in what section, running my eyes over the names of authors familiar and un, making a mental list of holiday presents and classics that I've just got to get around to, someday.

While Longfellow co-owners Chris Bowe and Stuart Gerson may highlight their store's role in the local literary landscape, I submit that those moments are the reason we need brick-and-mortar bookshops: They're tactile, sensory places for the book nerd in all of us.

This month, and for the rest of 2010, Longfellow Books will celebrate its tenth anniversary. Ten years tucked into the space at One Monument Way, 10 years of staff picks and book signings and special orders and Twilight and Harry Potter. The doors stayed open on September 11, 2001, but closed for President Obama's inaugural ceremony in 2009. Bowe and Gerson weathered the economic changes that forced another big-name bookstore, Books, Etc., to abandon its downtown location while maintaining its Falmouth outpost. Like its cousin to the south, Nonesuch Books & Cards, which has locations in South Portland and Saco and recently celebrated its own decade of existence, Longfellow Books is a fixture in Southern Maine's erudite literary scene.

And in an age when Slate.com forecasts "the death of the independent bookstore;" when every volume you could ever want is available on Amazon.com, when entire books are readable on the Internet and on portable electronic-book devices, shops like Longfellow Books and Nonesuch have managed to stay afloat by catching on to the two things that can keep independent bookstores in business: local focus and used-book sales. They also benefit from a well-educated consumer base and a lively writing community.

As one local author puts it: "The folks at Longfellow's sell books but they also offer de facto psychotherapy for writers," Portland novelist and writing teacher Lewis Robinson tells me. "What better place is there to go if you're worried that the world of books and readers is on the ebb? I love Portland in big part because of the literary nerve center they've fostered."


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