Gary Lawless and his wife, Beth Leonard, have owned Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick for almost 40 years.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new weekly series in the Coastal Journal where a prominent member of the community will answer five questions about their work, their business and their community.

BRUNSWICK — At the end of February, Gary Lawless and his wife, Beth Leonard, will celebrate 40 years of business for Gulf of Maine Books, a downtown staple that brings together book lovers and readers young and old to browse the latest best-seller or thumb through a classic by a world-famous author.

When the store opened in 1979, local bookstores were the place where people would gather to not only buy something to read, but to connect with friends and others in the community. Lawless and Leonard have kept that spirit alive, despite changes in the industry that saw the rise and decline of big box stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, while still contending with the biggest retailer of all – Amazon.

Gulf of Maine Books, at 134 Maine St., is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The bookstore often hosts publishing parties, readings and book signings. For more information, call 729-5083 or email [email protected]

Coastal Journal: How has the business changed with the rise and fall of big-box booksellers and the domination of Amazon?
Gary Lawless: There have been at least a dozen bookstores in the Bath/Brunswick area since we opened in 1979. There were local chains and larger chains—Bookland, Borders, Royal Discount Books—and local bookstores like MacBeans, Bath Bookshop, Coffee Dog Books, the Mustard Seed, used bookstores, a religious bookstore, a college bookstore and more. Most of these are gone now. (NOTE: The Mustard Seed Bookstore is still open on Bath’s Front Street. –ED.)  Amazon has come to the forefront as a predatory destroyer of community, offering deep discounts and fast service, but people still seem to value the feel of a book, the sense of community that a local store gives and the knowledge that money spent there stays in the community.

CJ: Why did you decide to open a bookstore? Where did your love of books come from?
GL:
(My wife) Beth Leonard and I opened Gulf of Maine books in late February 1979. We both had been working at Bookland in Brunswick, and I had previously worked at Bookland in Lewiston, as well.

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I came to Brunswick with the opening of Bookland, and Beth is a Brunswick native. We both share a love of literature, of poetry, an interest in smaller presses, independent publishing, and wanted to open a store which reflected our own interests, as well as the shared reading interests of the community.

In 1973, I had been living as an apprentice with the poet Gary Snyder in California and was hitchhiking back home to Maine. My friend, the poet Jim Koller, had landed a job as manager of the soon to open Bookland in Lewiston and started mailing postcards—offering me a job—to people he thought I might visit as I headed East. Once I saw the card, I made my way back to Maine and started work at the store. I hadn’t been looking for a bookstore job, but fate intervened, and that is what I have done ever since.

CJ: How has Brunswick and the local Midcoast community supported your business? What is the demographic of your typical customer?
GL: We don’t have a typical customer. We have year-round customers, and we come to know their distinct likes and dislikes. We have summer customers, many of whom get nostalgic and say they used to have a bookstore in their town, and we have high school students looking for “The Crucible” or “1984.” We have Bowdoin College customers, we have Senior College customers, people looking for baby shower books and we have customers we only see at Christmas time. We sell books at community events and fairs, and for we’ve had a booth at the Common Ground Fair in Unity for the last 39 years.

CJ: What is the Maine reader like? What kind of books do people in Maine generally enjoy?
GL: Each day is new, and each customer is unique. We are lucky to have our store in such a literate and engaged reading community. We try to give our customers attention, support and suggestion—not only to help them find the books they are looking for, but also to suggest new titles, new authors and new ways of seeing the world. We are not dominated by Amazon. They would like all small community bookstores to disappear, but that will not happen. There is still a reading audience who want to go to a bookstore, browse the books, touch the books, get suggestions, overhear and join into conversations and be with other people who love reading, love books and love being a part of a community of readers. We want to be a part of that community and to keep it alive, vibrant and growing.

CJ: What has allowed smaller bookstores, like your store, Mustard Seed and shops in Portland, among other places, to remain in business despite Amazon and Target and other places that sell books at often discount prices?
GL: Having been in business for 40 years, we have a sense of what our customers want from us, what areas of interest we need to be well stocked in and which areas we can do without—although modern computers and fast shipping make it possible and usually easy to order titles for individual customers and receive them quickly. Over the years, our customers have come to know what to expect from us, which areas we will emphasize the most and which areas we will pay little attention to. That really is why we own our own bookstore. We can promote titles, information, ideas in which we are interested, and then we get to meet and talk with other people who share our interest and concerns. We see this as strengthening and growing our community. We want a bookstore which is a part of the local community, not a vast, faceless website which helps to destroy local communities.

Jason Pafundi is the associate editor of the Coastal Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]

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