February 11, 2013

Portland's Longfellow Books sustains serious damage

The store loses thousands of titles after a water line bursts.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Longfellow Books in Monument Square sustained serious water damage during Saturday's storm after a frozen water line burst, but the owners say firefighters' efforts to save thousands of books will allow the store to reopen.

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Tony Napolitano of T.A. Napolitano Inc. disconnects lights that were damaged by water after a second-floor sprinkler pipe froze and burst Saturday at Longfellow Books in Portland’s Monument Square.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Dustin Souza vacuums up the water from the carpet at Longfellow Books in Portland on Sunday.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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The store is one of the last few remaining independent bookstores in Maine and a beloved institution for the city's literary community.

Responding firefighters covered the books with large tarps normally used to cover items salvaged at fire scenes. They also carried books outside to keep them from getting soaked.

"When I got there, they had already broken in a side door," said co-owner Chris Bowe. "There were maybe 20 of them, and they were amazing. Instead of standing around and letting the water fall, they were carrying books to safety. ... I couldn't believe how fast they worked to save the books. They saved an enormous amount of stock."

"It was a reverse 'Fahrenheit 451,'" Bowe said, referring to Ray Bradbury's 1953 science fiction classic, in which books are outlawed and burned by firemen.

Bowe estimated that 40 percent to 50 percent of the store's roughly 30,000 titles were damaged.

Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said the storm's powerful winds pushed in a second-story window above the store. Blowing snow then poured through the window and filled up an office room. As the snow began to melt, water dripped on the books below, LaMoria said.

To make matters worse, cold air froze a water line in the building's sprinkler system. The line burst, sending water cascading down on the bookshelves.

LaMoria said four units responded to the scene around 6:30 p.m.

"The crews worked very, very hard," he said. "They utilized a great amount of time and equipment to eliminate the water damage there."

Longfellow Books was opened 13 years ago by Bowe and Stuart Gersen, who were employees of its bankrupt predecessor, Bookland.

On Saturday night, after they reported on Facebook that they were closing the store indefinitely, nearly 200 customers wrote responses, many of them offering to help or organize fundraising events.

The store is "invaluable" to the city's community life and cultural life, Nicole d'Entremont, a Portland novelist, said in an interview. "We have to get it open right away. There are so many people -- tons of folks -- who want to help."

Eleanor Morse, a Peaks Island writer who chose the store to launch her new novel, "White Dog Fell from the Sky," said supporters are eager to help.

"Oftentimes, insurance doesn't cover the whole thing," she said. "If that is the case, people are ready to do whatever is needed, whether its moving soggy books with a human chain, or doing fundraisers around town. There are hundreds of people who are concerned about Longfellow Books."

Bowe said he plans to open the store by Thursday night, when the store will host a special Valentine's Day reading to benefit the campaign to free the band members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk-rock band serving a two-year prison term for staging a protest in a Moscow cathedral.

Bowe said he doesn't know how much of the damage his insurance will cover. He said he has mixed emotions about the offer for financial help. Although he doesn't want to take a "handout" from the community, he also wants to make sure that his book suppliers get paid.

"I don't want to be a burden on the community," he said. "I just want to be open and be their bookseller again."

He said he is confident that the store can rebound.

"Never underestimate the power of an independent bookstore," he said. "We have survived the chains. We have survived Amazon. We have survived the Kindles. The bookstore is one of those good places in the community. We will struggle, but we will get there."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes contributed to this report.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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