February 11, 2013

Maine writers rally for damaged Longfellow Books

Snow storm destroyed half the shop's collection as pipes froze and burst

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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."

Such loyalty is an important commodity for independent booksellers. As readers download more books and use the national retail giants to buy online, Longfellow Book 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. They have to be real smart entrepreneurs and they have to be highly visible in their community, and Longfellow is, on both counts," Teicher said.

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 over 2011, and Teicher said membership in the American Booksellers Association is growing.

He said, "A store like Longfellow is aggressively involved in the community. 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, said Bodwell. 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 water-logged 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, he 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 more 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.

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