Two booksellers with Maine roots are bringing a new bookstore to Portland this fall, reflecting a back-to-the-future trend: the return of the independent bookshop.
When Emily Russo and Josh Christie open Print: A Bookstore at the base of Munjoy Hill around Oct. 1, the city will have four independent stores selling new books. That translates to roughly six stores per 100,000 people, although that doesn’t hold a candle to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which has 25 bookstores per 100,000 people, more than any city in the world, according to a study by the World Cities Cultural Forum.
Still, having more than one independent bookstore should be something to boast about.
“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” said Steve Fischer, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association.
In an era when online retailing, led by behemoth Amazon, was supposed to kill the independent bookstore, the segment is instead very much alive and kicking.
The American Booksellers Association, a national trade group that represents independent bookstores, said it has 1,775 members, an increase of more than 300 since 2009 and a jump of 63 in the last year alone. And many independent booksellers operate in more than one location, said Dan Cullen, a spokesman for the organization. He noted that the number of stores operated by member companies has grown by nearly 40 percent in the past seven years, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,311 this year.
“There are so many great authors and small publishers around,” said Christie, who is partnering with Russo, the daughter of Maine author Richard Russo, to open Print: A Bookstore on Congress Street. “There’s an appetite for books and literature in Portland.”
READER FAMILIES, AUTHOR SERIES
Portland already has three independent bookstores downtown: Longfellow Books, just off Monument Square, Sherman’s Books and Stationary on Exchange Street, and Letterpress Books in Northgate Plaza in North Deering.
Russo and Christie have well-established track records in bookselling, with 20 years of experience between them.
Russo managed events and ran a book club at bookstores in Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York, and Christie has worked at Sherman’s since he took a summer job in the company’s Camden location in 2004. Most recently, he was a buyer for the small chain and manager of its Old Port store.
He also writes an outdoors column for the Maine Sunday Telegram.
They both grew up in book-loving families: Russo with her novelist father, and Christie with his avid-reader parents. His father, the former general manager of Sugarloaf ski area, also wrote books on skiing and the outdoors column for the Telegram.
“The apple didn’t exactly fall too far from the tree,” Russo said.
The two met when Christie was on the board of the New England Independent Booksellers Association and Russo was at The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts. They reconnected when Russo moved back to Maine last year.
Christie said he took his father’s death in May as a sign. He called his father, John, a “serial entrepreneur” in Maine’s ski industry, and said his death was the push he needed to strike out on his own. When he learned that Russo also was interested in starting a new store, the two decided to throw in together on the venture.
Fischer said booksellers, like other retailers facing stiff online competition, know that the keys to success are a knowledgeable staff, broad selections, strong customer service and a connection to the community. For bookstores, author events are particularly effective at drawing customers, he said.
“Sometimes people just want to see the author, sometimes they just want the book signed, but it’s always great to talk to an author,” he said.
Print plans to launch its own author series, and Richard Russo will interview first-time authors as part of that.
“Years ago, Maine welcomed me into its community of writers and I look forward to returning the favor by helping to introduce Maine readers to the next generation of emerging authors,” Richard Russo said in a written statement.
“A thriving literary community has always been a big part of Portland’s identity,” he said.
Christie said the new store will sell books for adults and children.
“Juvenile and adult fiction has a huge audience,” he said, and picture books for very young children are difficult to replicate online.
“It’s important to put print books in kids’ hands along with the iPad and television,” he said.
JOINING THE CROWD ON MUNJOY HILL
There are no plans to have a café onsite, but Russo said there’s a coffee shop just around the corner and the store will be “coffee friendly.”
Fischer said booksellers are benefiting from a greater appreciation of, and a stronger effort to support, local businesses. Portland is known for its large number of locally owned restaurants, he said, and residents also pack farmers markets and support nearby farms through subscriptions to community-supported agriculture programs, so it’s logical that a locally owned bookstore would attract support,
“It’s part of being a livable city,” Fischer said. “People see it as a feature of a good town or city.”
Russo said that sense led the two to decide to locate the store at the base of Munjoy Hill in the retail space formerly occupied by Angela Adams home furnishings.
“The growth is heading in that direction and Munjoy Hill is exploding with so many new businesses,” she said. “But one thing it doesn’t have is a new bookstore, and it seems like Munjoy Hill is its own self-sufficient neighborhood. That’s something we want to be a part of.”