Monday, December 9, 2013
By J. Hemmerdinger firstname.lastname@example.org
ROCKLAND - Locals describe Rockland's Rock City Books & Coffee as a community anchor.
Lacy Simons, the longtime manager of Rock City Books & Coffee in Rockland, is buying the book side of the business. “I am fully confident I will be doing well,” she said.
Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Bill Ronalds of Rockland, left, chats with a friend at Rock City, a Main Street institution. The cafe and bookstore will move into a larger space on Main Street when the deal closes.
"Everybody ends up here ... You have the morning crowd, and the same people on the same schedule," Marion McCord of Owls Head said, as she ate lunch at the cafe.
But Rock City, a Main Street institution, is transforming. With financial support from the independent book community, Rock City's longtime manager, Lacy Simons, is purchasing the book side of the business.
She'll soon change the name and add new inventory, efforts she hopes will help the store compete against aggressive national retailers.
The changes are similar to efforts by other booksellers in Maine to compete in a hostile book-selling environment.
Rock City carries about 6,000 books, most of them used. That's a small number compared to the inventory of major stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, and online retailer Amazon.com.
But Simons says she doesn't need an expansive selection because she has something larger competitors don't: close relationships with customers. She can buy books that she thinks will interest individual readers who frequent her store.
Less inventory also lets Simons and her staff call attention to their favorite reads, which they do with hand-written notes posted on books throughout the store. A note on one book reads, "Causing a ruckus in the literary world."
Those personal touches aren't lost on customers.
Mark Schlicher, who spent last week in Rockland on his honeymoon with his wife, Jackie, said Rock City's selection feels "curated" -- like the books have been vetted, the best selected.
"You can't manufacture that," he said. "Coming here reminds me of what a bookstore is like."
His wife agreed.
"The personal part is what is so appealing. This is one of those places that wakes you up," she said.
Independent booksellers across the nation have struggled for years to compete with national retailers.
The latest menace, said Meg Smith of the American Booksellers Association, is Amazon.com, which undercuts others on price and doesn't charge sales tax in many states, including Maine.
Then there are electronic readers -- devices such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook, which are pulling readers away from paper books.
"It's a time of lots of changes in the book industry. Everything is up in the air," Smith said.
"Everybody is having a tough time," said Susan Porter, owner of Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in Damariscotta. "It's not just bookstores -- all kinds of stores are struggling."
Rock City, which sells primarily used books, was opened in 1992 by Susanne Ward and Patrick Reilley as Second Read Books & Coffee.
After Reilley died in 2010, Ward decided to stop selling books and focus entirely on food and coffee sales.
She asked Simons, a lifelong book lover and longtime employee, if she wanted to buy the book business.
But without savings and saddled with student loan debt, Simons needed collateral to land a business loan.
She turned to the online independent book community for help, setting up a website where she asked for contributions from local customers and other independent bookstore supporters -- she pledged to return the funds to charity in two years' time if her business succeeded.
In five weeks, Simons collected $7,000, much of it from supporters who never set foot in Rock City. One contributor gave $1,000. She stopped accepting contributions in late April.
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