BRUNSWICK — Gary Lawless went to California when he was 21 to meet people who didn’t look like him and who spoke with voices he didn’t recognize. He grew up in Belfast in the 1960s and lived an isolated life on the Maine coast. He hadn’t heard the music his contemporaries were listening to elsewhere in America because radio stations in Belfast didn’t play the songs. He had never read the books they were reading or seen the movies they were watching.
Like many in his generation, he went to California to find out, hitching four days of rides across the country. He crashed at a friend’s place in the mountains and met people of color and different ethnicities and religions. He befriended musicians and poets. He expanded his view of the world, often espousing his new world view in poetry. “It really gave me a sense of the possibility of what poetry and writing are capable of,” he said. “Everyone I was around out there was socially and politically engaged. That was so important.”
After staying less than a year, he returned home determined to recreate in Maine some of what he found in California. He began writing poetry in earnest and took a job in a bookstore to support himself. In 1979, he created a utopia of progressive ideas when he and his wife, Beth Leonard, opened Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. For nearly 40 years, the store has served as a base for Lawless and his effort to empower people with poetry, song and an exchange of ideas.
In March, the Maine Humanities Council awards Lawless its Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize, which recognizes people and organizations who make a difference in the lives of others through the humanities. In announcing the prize, the council’s executive director, Hayden Anderson, cited Lawless for his work with communities of people whose voices aren’t often heard. “He is bringing poetry to Mainers who just would not otherwise have poetry in their day-to-day lives,” Anderson said. “If there’s anyone out there day in and day out, year in and year out, working to bring poetry to every single Mainer, Gary is the guy.”
Lawless, 65, is one of Maine’s outsize personalities. He’s an activist, advocate and artist with a long white beard that reaches the third button of his shirt. He speaks his mind on political and social issues and stocks his store with books that reflect his beliefs and opinions, as well as those of others. One friend calls him a tender-hearted curmudgeon. Another says his rough edges have been worn soft with age.
That opinion probably depends on whom you ask. A few weeks ago, Lawless sent a poem to Sen. Susan Collins protesting her introduction of attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It included the line, “Maine leads the way with the KKK,” and he addressed it to “Susan KKKollins.”
He’s read his poems in Cuba, Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania, and he travels regularly to Italy. This fall, he and Leonard will spend a month in Venice for a writing residency. “An arts foundation is giving us an apartment for a month, mid-October to mid-November,” he said. “I am supposed to go and write.”
Lawless is ingrained in Maine’s contemporary culture, working with groups and organizations with deep roots in their communities. He and Leonard organize and host the Social and Political Action Area at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, where Lawless leads readings at Russell’s Poetry Grove, named in honor of his late friend Russell Libby, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s longtime director who died in 2012. They often read together at the fair, each trying to top the other with a poem better than the one before.
He was involved in the early stages of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance in the 1970s, and he is working to preserve the birthplace in Rockland of Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. He has volunteered at Spindleworks, an arts center just down the street from his store with a mission of helping people with disabilities achieve full lives, nearly as long as he owned the store.
He’s written poems with veterans in Lewiston and with homeless people in Portland, and he teaches poetry to school children and retirees.
“He’s a wonderful poet and a creative soul, but he has this whole other side to him that is so committed to social justice,” said Maine crime writer Paul Doiron, a Maine Humanities Council board member and a 30-year friend. “He really walks the talk. In my estimate, that’s pretty unusual. It’s easy for people be political without following through, without being on the ground. Everywhere you look, you probably will find some organization where he has volunteered his time, and people will speak so highly of what he’s doing.”
As much as it is a bookstore, Gulf of Maine Books is a hub where people can get information to become better informed citizens. The store, at 134 Maine St., has evolved into what Pulitzer Prize-winning author and midcoast resident Elizabeth Strout calls “a true community center” where people stop in for conversation and intellectual stimulation driven by the books that Lawless and Leonard stock on their shelves.
In addition to titles by local and regional authors, they sell books about nature and the environment, women’s issues, Indian culture and spirituality, and world literature. They have books for young readers and one of the largest collections of poetry titles in northern New England.
The windows of the store are covered with fliers promoting local concerts and lectures. The aisles are narrow, and cartons of unopened books are often stacked near the register. It has a worn, lived-in feel. Since it opened in 1979, Gulf of Maine has outlasted two national bookstore chains in Brunswick, as well as several small booksellers who have come and gone.
When it was time to move the store’s stock from a previous location down the street, Lawless sent a postcard to customers asking for help lugging boxes of books. Sixty-five people showed up. “We moved the store in one day, and we reopened the next day,” he said.
Among those who helped were Peter Simmons and Charlotte Agell, a Brunswick couple who met at the store as students at Bowdoin College. Now married, they followed their love of literature to Gulf of Maine when it was in its original location, in a building near Bowdoin that no longer exists.
Agell was drawn to the store by the big dogs who slept by the register and the professorial poets who read there. Simmons was drawn by the art in the windows. The two have been regular customers since. “It may not have all the latest best sellers, but it has what we’re interested in,” Simmons said.
Strout appreciates the independent nature of the bookstore because it reflects diverse local interests. She stops in to browse and “to order whatever books happen to be of interest at the moment. I will order it and get it in a few days,” she said. “I appreciate Gary so much. He is very discreet. He is a lovely presence.”
Strout’s husband, Jim Tierney, is a near-daily regular. It’s like a coffee shop, but instead of coffee people come in for conversation and stimulation, he said. “You can go in and really have a discussion on any given day whether you are buying something or not. You feel comfortable walking in. It’s a funky place, the physicality of it. No one is in a hurry. Gary is astoundingly patient,” said Tierney, the state’s former attorney general. “We talk ideas. We argue. He is opinionated. I am opinionated. We don’t always agree, but that’s OK.”
In many ways, the bookstore is a means to an end for Lawless. He started working at Bookland in Brunswick when he returned from California in 1973. “I was a poet who needed a job,” he said. The core of his work and the center of his being involves writing poetry and encouraging others to write. He works with veterans groups, immigrant communities and anyone else who wants to express themselves. He leads workshops on syntax and grammar, but he’s mostly interested in encouraging people to write about their lives.
“I had this idea that a community was really a conversation, and it wasn’t a true community unless all voices were represented in the conversation,” he said.
The award, he said, is humbling and timely. Like a lot of progressives, he worries what a Trump presidency means for people whose voices aren’t heard. He believes his work is as important now as ever. “It’s not going to get better for poor folks and people with disabilities,” he said. “Part of what I do with all those groups is encourage them to speak for themselves, and help them realize that their opinions and feelings are important and valuable to the community. It’s harder to think about issues that concern them if you don’t know how they feel and you just write them off as a group.”
Lawless and Leonard live in Nobleboro in an early 1800s farmhouse known as Chimney Farm, once owned by the writers Henry Beston and Elizabeth Coatsworth. Beston, a naturalist, was a pioneer of American’s environmental movement. Coatsworth wrote poetry and fiction for children and adults. She won the Newbery Medal for a children’s book in 1931.
When Coatsworth died in 1986, their daughter, the poet Kate Barnes, Maine’s original poet laureate, asked Lawless and Leonard to move into the house. They’ve been there since. When Barnes died in 2013, she left them the house and a small section of land.
Living in a house previously occupied by writers interested in nature is haunting, Lawless said. He knows the history of the place since Beston and Coatsworth moved there in 1929, because they wrote about it. “They were all very interested in the natural world, so we know pretty much what happened there every season,” Lawless said. “They were writing about it – where the apples trees came from, where the lilies came from, and the roses.”
If it feels like they’re still there, it’s because they are. Beston, Coatsworth and Barnes are all buried on the property.
Mary Anne Libby, Russell Libby’s widow, has always appreciated how Lawless uses his craft to write respectfully of the earth.
His poetry, she says, has this “deep instinctual understanding of life around us, and whether it is various animals, whether it’s plants or the soil or the air or the stars, he has reverence for it, though he might laugh at me for using that word. It goes so deep and so wide. He can do it with humor or do it with anger, but mostly he can take my breath away with just a very few words.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: