Jeff Curtis operates five Sherman’s Books and Stationery stores in Maine. The first, in Bar Harbor, opened in 1886 and was bought by Curtis’ parents in the early 1960s. After working as a lawyer in Portland, Curtis opened stores in Boothbay Harbor, Freeport and Camden and then purchased the original Bar Harbor store from his mother in 2006. A fifth Sherman’s, at 43 Exchange St., will open April 1. Curtis said he expects annual sales of about $5.5 million once the Portland store opens. The chain has 25 full-time and year-round employees and about 50 in the summer.
Q: Why did you give up a law practice to run a bookstore?
A: I think there’s something contagious when you grew up in a family that’s self-employed. It makes it difficult to work for other people and very exciting to start and manage a successful venture.
Q: Is that true for your siblings too?
A: Both my brothers are also in retail. My brother opened Cadillac Mountain Sports in Bar Harbor and the retail business attracted him. He went out and formed a different model, but I was more conservative because my parents had a successful model and I figured they might let me copy them, and they did.
Q: The natural question everyone has is: How does a small, independent bookstore chain survive competing with the likes of Amazon?
A: Everybody was very concerned in the beginning with Amazon, and more recently with the advent of digital books. But I remember back to the early ‘60s when we got our first color TV, everybody thought no one would read books any more, but that didn’t happen.
Q: Why would customers opt for a bookstore versus going online?
A: We offer an experience that you can’t get online. You can’t touch and feel the book and get recommendations from a reader you knew before and trust. In my darker moments, I realize we would have grown more without the Internet and Amazon, but you can’t go there. I had a mentor who once gave me some great advice: “Never look at someone else’s plate, just figure out if you’re still hungry.”
We operate in resort towns and people have very fond memories of their local bookstores, so for many tourists, spending two hours in our store brings back a fond memory.
Q: Do you have to change what you stock and your prices to compete with Internet retailers?
A: The stock isn’t so different, but pricing got more competitive about 10 years ago and we started discounting our bestsellers, just like the big boys were. But we’ve never been solely a bookstore. Sherman’s has carried other things that people in town needed because we’re located in towns that shut down pretty much in the winter and we stayed open all year. People would stop in and ask for something, so a lot of it came from customer needs. We’re always listening to what our customers need and don’t say, “We couldn’t carry that because it’s not a book.”
Q: What kinds of other things?
A: Boothbay Harbor and Bar Harbor, those are the most diverse stores. We have a full toy department, housewares, art supplies, office supplies – a lot of products you wouldn’t expect to find in a bookstore. Our Camden store, which is the smallest store, has pretty much books and a great toy department, but there are places there that sell housewares and a place with souvenirs in the summer. In Portland we’re opening up right beside a great toy store, so we won’t have a big toy department, but we’ll look around and see what’s needed, what niche we can fit into.
Q: How do you judge those niches?
A: My daughter has come to work for the company and she’s 24, from a whole other generation from me, and she’s bought some very interesting, thoughtful gifts that she thought people might enjoy. We have mountains of boxes in Portland now and I’m as excited as a kid at Christmas, opening all those boxes, because my daughter and our buyers have been buying those things.
For a long time you had “true bookstores,” and sometimes people were kind of snobby about what that meant, but about eight years ago when the pressure really came on, there was a big push on (among other bookstores) to see what other things you could sell. So, sometimes you just have to persevere and wait to be recognized.
Q: Do you go online and check out what Amazon is doing?
A: I don’t. I don’t even go into other bookstores. I probably should, but I like doing what we do and like to do it without being influenced, and I have a great team and they probably check them out. One of the worst things you can do is try to force one store’s design on another location, but what you really do have to do is listen. I think Sherman’s is known for great customer service.
Q: Do you expect to add more stores?
A: I never say never and it actually gets easier the bigger we are. I’m sure there’s a limit to that. When I had one store and something had to be done, there was only one person to nominate to do it – me. But now I have a great team, so now running five stores is not 20 percent harder than four stores. With my daughter now in the company, I could see her taking the company on a growing streak. We’re not so aggressive, when you figure this is our fifth store and it’s been 25 years since I started.
Q: Your son Myles is a teacher in Virginia. Were you worried that your daughter, Tori, wouldn’t be interested in joining the company?
A: I wasn’t worried. She studied advertising and had a good job in Boston, but she grew up in a family of self-employed people and I think she got that bug. She has lots of options, but in my opinion, Sherman’s wouldn’t be the worst of her options.
Q: Do you do a lot of reading?
A: I actually listen to books because of all the driving I do. I am able to consume more books now than I ever have, but it’s primarily in the car. I have been known to sit in the driveway after an hour’s drive because the book’s at a really good point.
Right now, it’s “Me Before You,” by JoJo Moyes. It’s really well-written and the main character had an accident and became a quadriplegic, and my dad was a quadriplegic. It explains what it’s like to go from being able-bodied to dependent on others. It can make you laugh and cry at the same time.
Q: Do people call you Mr. Sherman all the time?
A: When I grew up, my father’s name was Mike and my older brother’s name was Mike and in this small town, people all called me Mike. I stopped correcting them, so people can call me Sherman. Nobody’s called me Mr. Peabody yet.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]