ROCKLAND – Locals describe Rockland’s Rock City Books & Coffee as a community anchor. 

“Everybody ends up here … You have the morning crowd, and the same people on the same schedule,” Marion McCord of Owls Head said, as she ate lunch at the cafe. 

But Rock City, a Main Street institution, is transforming. With financial support from the independent book community, Rock City’s longtime manager, Lacy Simons, is purchasing the book side of the business.

She’ll soon change the name and add new inventory, efforts she hopes will help the store compete against aggressive national retailers. 

The changes are similar to efforts by other booksellers in Maine to compete in a hostile book-selling environment.

Rock City carries about 6,000 books, most of them used. That’s a small number compared to the inventory of major stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and online retailer Amazon.com.

But Simons says she doesn’t need an expansive selection because she has something larger competitors don’t: close relationships with customers. She can buy books that she thinks will interest individual readers who frequent her store.

Less inventory also lets Simons and her staff call attention to their favorite reads, which they do with hand-written notes posted on books throughout the store. A note on one book reads, “Causing a ruckus in the literary world.”

Those personal touches aren’t lost on customers.

Mark Schlicher, who spent last week in Rockland on his honeymoon with his wife, Jackie, said Rock City’s selection feels “curated” — like the books have been vetted, the best selected. 

“You can’t manufacture that,” he said. “Coming here reminds me of what a bookstore is like.”

His wife agreed.

“The personal part is what is so appealing. This is one of those places that wakes you up,” she said.

Independent booksellers across the nation have struggled for years to compete with national retailers.

The latest menace, said Meg Smith of the American Booksellers Association, is Amazon.com, which undercuts others on price and doesn’t charge sales tax in many states, including Maine.

Then there are electronic readers — devices such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, which are pulling readers away from paper books.

“It’s a time of lots of changes in the book industry. Everything is up in the air,” Smith said.

“Everybody is having a tough time,” said Susan Porter, owner of Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in Damariscotta. “It’s not just bookstores — all kinds of stores are struggling.”

Rock City, which sells primarily used books, was opened in 1992 by Susanne Ward and Patrick Reilley as Second Read Books & Coffee.

After Reilley died in 2010, Ward decided to stop selling books and focus entirely on food and coffee sales.

She asked Simons, a lifelong book lover and longtime employee, if she wanted to buy the book business.

Simons did.

But without savings and saddled with student loan debt, Simons needed collateral to land a business loan. 

She turned to the online independent book community for help, setting up a website where she asked for contributions from local customers and other independent bookstore supporters — she pledged to return the funds to charity in two years’ time if her business succeeded.

In five weeks, Simons collected $7,000, much of it from supporters who never set foot in Rock City. One contributor gave $1,000. She stopped accepting contributions in late April.

Simons said the money — and the show of support — convinced a bank to grant her a loan. She declined to discuss the amount.

Simons expects the deal with Ward to close later this month, at which time she’ll rename the business hello hello books.

She and Ward also plan to move both businesses — the cafe and bookshop — into a larger space on Main Street in Rockland. In another change, the stores will not be in the same room, but will be connected with a door.

Simons said the name and location change will help establish a new identity for her shop. She plans to add more new books to her inventory, as well as magazines, and will continue to showcase the works of local artists and to host community events and book signings.

Chris Bowe, part-owner of Longfellow Books on Monument Square in Portland, said community involvement helps independent book stores build a loyal customer base.

Longfellow frequently holds book-signing and wine events, and sends email updates to customers.

Bowe said Longfellow had an “excellent” year in 2010. And he predicts a strong summer.

He added that Maine is lucky — the state has no shortage of talented authors. Part of his job, he said, is to promote them. He noted that nine of the top 12 books on Longfellow’s best-selling list were written by local authors.

“People are starting to recognize the value of bookstores. It’s a place that (unites) the community,” Bowe said.

Smith, of the American Booksellers Association, said small shops are adapting to market changes and competing in new ways. Some are holding more community events; others are selling books on consignment, thus minimizing inventory expenses.

Others are going online. Madison, Conn.-based Just the Right Book picks books based on an individual’s interests and ships them as gifts.

“They are capitalizing on what independents do well, which is knowing their customers, curating their contents and selling what customers like,” Smith said.

Porter at Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe said she is more optimistic about the future of independent booksellers than she was a year ago. 

She said her shop is having a good year thanks to book-signing events and new inventory — she now sells cards, stationery and “high-end” children’s toys and puppets.

Brian Harden, business manager at Rockland’s Reading Corner, a bookstore selling new books, has mixed thoughts about the industry.

He said nothing during his 35 years in the book business has “gotten people away” from their local bookstore. And he doesn’t expect that to change in the near future.

He added that personal relationships with customers help small shops stand out. 

“Stores like ours, that are a fixture in a small town, are still able to have a legitimate piece of the business,” he said.

But Harden also said the business is uncertain. 

“We have a limited future if the business goes the way it has been headed,” he said.

As for Simons, she has faith her new business will succeed. “I am fully confident I will be doing well,” she said, adding that the store “sucks people in.”

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com