Chris Bowe, co-owner of Longfellow Books in Portland, says that each of the 30,000 books in the store will have to be looked at to see which have suffered water damage after a pipe burst in the bookstore over the weekend.
By Bob Keyes
PORTLAND – For 13 years, Longfellow Books in Monument Square has been fiercely loyal to Maine's community of readers and writers.
On Monday, that community began plotting ways to return the favor.
Maine writers offered help, support and sympathy to the independent bookstore, where as many as half of the 30,000 titles were damaged when this weekend's blizzard pushed in a second-story window and caused pipes to freeze and burst overhead.
"More than any other bookstore, they are involved in our lives," said Sibyl Masquilier, a writer from Cape Elizabeth. "They know the authors, they know their families, they know where they live and how they live. They take such an interest in our community. This is our chance for our community to reciprocate."
Since Saturday's flood, Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, has fielded dozens of emails, phone calls and Facebook queries from alliance members across Maine.
"Everybody is asking what they can do," he said. "At this point, I think the best thing to do to help is to do what your instinct tells you to do: Go there and buy books."
Loyalty is an important commodity for independent booksellers. As readers download more books and use the national retail giants to buy online, Longfellow Books maintains its niche by responding to readers and writers and putting community first, said Oren Teicher, chief executive officer of the New York-based American Booksellers Association.
"The folks at Longfellow Books are working really hard. They have to, in order to be able to hang in there," Teicher said. "They have to be real smart entrepreneurs and they have to be highly visible in their community, and Longfellow is, on both counts."
He said independent booksellers fight the misperception that they are losing an economic battle against giant retailers. Nationally, independent booksellers reported an 8 percent increase in sales last year compared with 2011, and Teicher said membership in the American Booksellers Association is growing.
"A store like Longfellow is aggressively involved in the community," he said. "It offers a lot of events and a high level of customer service. Mostly, they know a lot about books. That's what distinguishes them."
And that's why so many people have rallied around the store in the past 48 hours, Bodwell said. He noted that Longfellow hosts readings by local authors regularly, and promotes local titles with window displays and publicity events.
The store is active in the Buy Local campaign and responds to the community by paying attention to what people want to read and are willing to buy. In return, consumers offer their loyalty, he said.
"They are the complete personification of the importance of independent bookstores," Bodwell said, comparing Longfellow Books to a public library. "If you want a book, that's the place to go to get it."
Chris Bowe, a co-owner of the bookstore, renewed his pledge Monday to reopen in time for a community fundraiser Thursday night.
Bowe, who vows to go unshaven until the store reopens, said his staff of 10 will work full shifts Tuesday, removing damaged books from the shelves.
Many of the waterlogged books are beyond saving, but a large portion sustained only minor damage. Books that can be saved but not sold likely will be donated to libraries or other reading outlets, Bowe said. He has talked to his insurance company and is waiting to learn the best way to proceed.
Few writers have benefited more from Longfellow's community-first approach than Cynthia Thayer of Gouldsboro.
Thayer, author of "Strong for Potatoes," "A Certain Slant of Light" and "A Brief Lunacy," faced a personal crisis when she and her husband, a farmer, lost a barn and hundreds of livestock in a fire in May.
When Bowe heard about the fire, he contacted Bodwell and offered to host a book-signing event, featuring dozens of Maine writers, to benefit Thayer. It was scheduled during one of Portland's busiest First Friday Art Walks, in June.
When Thayer heard about the flood at the bookstore, she figured the least she could do was return the favor. She contacted Bodwell right away, asking what she could do to help.
"They are stalwarts of the community," Thayer said. "They were incredible to us. They helped us raise several thousand dollars. It's almost hard to believe that things can be done quickly and amazingly well if a bunch of people get behind it. We certainly saw it, and I think the bookstore will see it as well."
Bowe expressed appreciation for the "overwhelming" volume of messages and gestures of support that he and his business partner, Stuart Gersen, have received since the flood.
"I've been here 13 years. I know a lot of people," he said Monday as blue tarps covered shelves and tables of books and as industrial-strength drying fans whirred in the aisles. "But I never realized what this store means to people until this weekend. Ultimately, we're a retail store. You can get our products anywhere. But people seem to love our store."
Bowe and Bodwell traded emails Monday about how the community can respond. Bowe said he doesn't oppose the idea of a fundraiser, but he isn't looking for a handout.
He agreed with Bodwell about the best way for people to help: "By doing what they always do. By allowing us to be their bookseller," he said. "Support us by buying books."
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:
Water damaged books are piled on a chair in Longfellow Books in Portland on Monday, February 11, 2013. The bookstore had a frozen sprinkler pipe burst over the weekend.