Rebecca Morton, with her children Greta Lavierriere, 4, and Theo Lavierriere, 7, is planning to open Back Cove Books in the Odd Fellows building at Woodfords Corner in the fall, bringing the number of independently owned bookstores in Portland to five. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A new bookstore planned for Woodfords Corner would be the fifth independently owned bookshop in Portland – about five times as many a population its size has on average nationally.

Becca Morton has leased the first floor of the historic Odd Fellows Hall on outer Forest Avenue, with its distinctive clock tower, where she plans to open Back Cove Books, writing the latest chapter in the neighborhood’s continuing revival.

With the pandemic fueling interest in both reading and shopping close to home, industry insiders say there’s good reason to believe her community-focused store will succeed, despite all the other options Portland readers have.

The city is already home to Longfellow Books, Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop, and Print: A Bookstore, all on the peninsula; also Letterpress Books in North Deering’s Northgate Plaza, as well as several independently owned used or rare book stores and some retail shops that sell books alongside other items.

While it’s difficult to determine exactly how Portland compares to other cities in number of bookstores per capita, experts say the abundance is apparent and attribute it to residents’ appetite for reading and the business owners’ unique approaches.

“In general, I think the more bookstores in the world, the better,” said Ari Gersen, who owns Longfellow Books in Monument Square, a store his late father opened in 2001.

Advertisement

“Unequivocally, I think more is better,” agreed Josh Christie, co-owner of Print, which he founded in 2016 with Emily Russo. “I hope it just leads to people buying more books at the end of the day. I know that sounds like it’s thin, but it’s not. Portland is an incredible literary town. To put it in nautical terms, a rising tide lifts all boats, and I think all of us are complementary to one another.”

Morton is counting on that. She notes that unlike many of the city’s other independent bookstores, hers won’t be downtown, so she can join “a really phenomenal group of independent booksellers and also not step on anyone’s toes.” She hopes that Back Cove Books will bring the revitalizing Woodfords Corner neighborhood “that much more solidity as its own community.”

She and others note that independent bookstores have distinct personalities, a big part of their charm. As both the city and the number of tourists in town continue to grow, Portland can comfortably accommodate more bookstores, just as it has accommodated more restaurants, they say.

Katherine Osborne, owner of Letterpress Books, is a little more guarded. “I guess we’ll find out,” she said when asked if the city can support another independent bookstore. “I honestly don’t know.”

In 2013, when Letterpress opened, Longfellow was the only independent bookstore in Portland, she said, not counting used bookshops. “Things have exploded since then, and I think that’s great. We’ll find out what the saturation level is.”

Morton, who has lived in the Back Cove neighborhood with her family for 10 years, originally planned to open a children’s bookstore. But a recent two-year stint working at Print persuaded her otherwise. An avid reader, Morton was reminded that “adult books are just as magical. People love being in (bookstores), and I think it would be a missed opportunity for the neighborhood to have it just be kids.”

Advertisement

The neighborhood is already loving the idea back.

“We we are thrilled,” Teresa Valliere, president of the neighborhood association Friends of Woodfords Corner, said about the prospective shop. “A bookstore is a gathering space that creates community and is one of the most common things that people ask for in the neighborhood.” (The others are coffee shops and pubs.)

Portland is rich in independent bookstores, including, pictured here, Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop on Exchange Street. W.H. Sherman opened the original store in Bar Harbor in 1896. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

BY THE NUMBERS

Neither the New England Independent Booksellers Association nor the American Booksellers Association, a 122-year-old not-for-profit trade organization for independent bookstores, keeps data about the number of independent bookstores in different cities. The U.S. Census Bureau tracks the number of bookstores by state, and with 37 in 2019, Maine had about 40 percent more shops per capita than the national average, which was one per every 54,299 residents.

Others have tried to rank U.S. cities for reader-friendliness. Clever, an online real estate platform, recently named “The Best Book Places in the U.S.” from among the country’s 50 most populous metro areas, taking into account factors such as literacy rates and the number of libraries, along with the number of independent bookstores. San Jose, California, ranked the highest in the category of indie bookstores per capita at 3.5 per 100,000 residents – about half as many as Portland will have per capita once Back Cove opens. Then again, just down the road, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has at least two bookstores, plus another that’s also a bar and music venue, and – with a population of just 22,000 – several more per capita than Portland’s 68,000 residents have.

But that’s not including the bigger city’s Green Hand Bookshop and Yes Books, both used bookstores on Congress Street, or Carlson & Turner Antiquarian, which sells rare books on Munjoy Hill. If you go by membership in the American Booksellers Association, you can add Treehouse Toys on Exchange Street, which sells children’s books alongside toys, to the tally of the city’s independent bookstores.

Advertisement

Customers browse the shelves at Longfellow Books in Portland in May 2021. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Portland is incredibly rich with (independent) bookstores,” said Beth Ineson, the Boston-based executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. Her group held its first in-person event in two years in Portland last month, so she is quite recently familiar with the city’s offerings. “It speaks to not only the excellent booksellers we have in New England but also (to the people) who live in Portland. If you are able to support so many stores, that is a clear indication of not only how smart and great the stores are but also how smart and great the people of Portland are.”

In the 1990s, big chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble were supposed to kill your neighborhood’s beloved, idiosyncratic independently owned bookstore. Amazon was the next independent bookstore-eating behemoth, and then there were e-readers. Big box stores like Walmart and Target have gone into the business of selling books – at bargain prices – adding another layer of threat.

According to the Census, the total number of bookstores in the country fell by about 50 percent between 1998 and 2019, to 6,045 shops. But many independent bookstores have defied the odds, in part by immersing themselves in their communities and by carving out individual niches, and now some say these bookstores are enjoying a renaissance.

On her visit to Portland in April, Allison Hill, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association, noticed “just such an abundance of these amazing bookstores. More important, they were so unique. Each has its own thing going on. You can see how these stores collectively serve everyone in your community.”

She singled out Letterpress for its great art and great children’s section, Print for its huge zine collection, “beautiful cards and great books curation,” and Sherman’s for its enthusiastic booksellers, who persuaded her to buy a book she’d never have picked up on her own: Susanna Clarke’s “Peranesi.” “And it’s good! It’s so good!” she said.

Several national trends that are evident in Portland also have helped revive the independent bookstore. Portlanders are increasingly interested in supporting local businesses, and they increasingly want to walk or bike to them. Relatedly, people working from home during the pandemic like having businesses in their own neighborhoods.

Advertisement

Hill said that during the pandemic, she’s noticed a “renaissance of readers,” especially among college students, as well as an increase in the number of people interested in owning a bookstore. “I think the disruption of the pandemic busted everything open,” she said. Such bookstore-owning dreams coincided with empty storefronts and lower commercial rents.

“Independent bookstores are known for being resilient and creative,” Hill said, “and they have proven that to be true.”

Back Cove Books will be on the ground floor of Woodfords Corner’s singular Odd Fellows Hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

BUILDING COMMUNITY

Morton has managed retail stores, and worked in customer service and marketing. But she has dreamed of owning a bookstore for some time, at least since her son, now 7, was a baby. She also has a 5-year-old daughter.

She searched for a location for Back Cove Books for a year before signing a lease for the space in the Odd Fellows Hall. The triangular-shaped brick building was built in 1897, when Forest Avenue was a dirt road, and since has served, among other things, as a bank, a police station and a bakery. In recent decades, it was home to a stamp and collectibles shop, whose owner just retired, according to Valliere of the neighborhood association. Morton called the very first day the spot became available.

“It’s just the perfect spot,” she said. “The space inside is almost intricate. There are a lot of little corners and nooks. There is an old bank vault so we are going to put books in the vault. It lends itself to the environment we want to create, an environment where you can come in, find your little corner, sit down, peruse the books, be with us.” She hopes her shop will be equal parts bookstore and “vibrant community gathering spot.”

Advertisement

Morton brings up community often when talking about her plan, thanking by name any number of local businesses, organizations, banks and individuals that are helping her get the bookstore off the ground, including Coveside Coffee, which is hosting a pop-up version of her bookshop through May 15.

“It’s amazing when you start a project like this and you invest time and all of the sudden the community you love invests back in you,” she said. “I’ve been blown away by that.”

She hopes to return the favor. She said she will stock whatever sorts of books the community shows interest in reading, and those choices will ultimately drive the “vibe and personality” of Back Cove Books.

“What’s going to be very important to us,” she added, “and is to all the bookstores in Portland, is a very diverse selection across religion, race, sexuality, gender. We want anyone walking into the store to be able to find themselves on the shelves.

“I can’t wait to feed people’s souls whatever they need,” she continued. “If you come in with a crying baby, and you just need me to read the baby a story for 20 minutes while you catch your breath, great, let’s do that.”

Features Editor Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: