Maine is a state of contrasts. Just look at some of its best known writers, like Stephen King, Richard Russo and Ursula Le Guin on the adult side, and E.B. White, Robert McCloskey and Barbara Cooney in children's.
With an area of 30,861 square miles, Maine is almost as big as the other five New England states combined. Yet its population of 1.3 million people is not much larger than that of Rhode Island. And while well-heeled communities, mostly in the southern part of the state where former President Bush lives, boost its average median household income so that it is on a par with Florida and North Carolina, parts of Maine are among the poorest in the country. Down east in Washington County, median household income is 35% below the $39,838 for the state as a whole, at $25,869; 14.2% of families in the county and 19% of individuals live below the poverty level. On top of that, according to a report from the Tax Foundation, Maine has the highest local tax burden of any state, edging out New York and Hawaii, numbers two and three, respectively.
Many of these same contrasts play out in the bookselling community as well. Although Borders's South Portland store is rumored to be among the chain's top five in the country during the summer tourist season (Borders declined to comment), University Bookstore at the University of Maine at Orono has had “pitiful” trade book sales in recent years, according to trade book manager Diane Genthner.
Not that it's a lot easier for stores along the mid-coast, like Owl & Turtle and Sherman's Books and Stationery in Camden, which both hit a dip when Brunswick Bookland & Cafe added a second store near them in the Breakwater Marketplace in Rockland in November 2005. Brunswick Bookland in turn was looking to bolster its sales when Borders opened a store at the Merrymeeting Plaza in Brunswick. “There are only a million and a quarter people, and that's not enough to support us all,” said Susan Porter, owner of 43-year-old Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in Damariscotta.
Jonathan Platt, co-owner of Nonesuch Books & Cards in South Portland and Saco, agrees that Maine's retail marketplace is oversaturated. He also cites what he calls “environmental factors” that hurt a store's bottom line, like electricity prices that have soared 40% in the past year.
Jim McCree, general manager of the 44-year-old 11-store Mr. Paperback, says Maine's independent booksellers are competing with more than just bookstore chains. “Maine is the place where nonconventional retailing is the rule,” said Down East Books sales representative Terry Brégy. In the tourist community of Bar Harbor alone, he calls on a bike shop, whale museum, candy shop and pet store. Other Maine accounts include retailing giant L.L. Bean, a handful of Mainely Maine gift shops, a maple sugar shop, a doll house store, a lobster pound, a bait shop, an apple orchard, a cheese factory and a gift shop shaped like a giant blueberry.
So what is selling in the Pine Tree State? Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, who spends a lot of time in elementary and middle school classrooms handing out galleys and blads, does particularly well with children's, YA and fantasy books. At Brunswick Bookland, buyer Suzan Steer said, categories like history, nature, science, children's and regional titles work best.
And Mainers have strong feelings about what constitutes a regional title. In a review of Burr Morse's Sweet Days & Beyond (Historical Pages), Brechner posed the not-so-rhetorical question of what to make of a book on maple sugar lore and family history set in Vermont? His answer: “[it] would stand a better chance of commercial success in Maine if it were a treatise on pineapple blight written in cuneiform.”