When Ellen Richmond looks out the front window of the Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine, she sees a main street torn up by equipment and talks about how the large infrastructure project going on has slowed foot traffic as the summer wanes. But she also sees what it will be like when the work is finished in two years and a host of arts institutions across Waterville converge, along with Colby College, in the newly revamped downtown.
“Waterville is definitely going to be a destination,” Richmond predicted, rattling off details about the organizations involved that show a deep knowledge of her community: the opera house has 825 seats; Railroad Square Cinema is undergoing a renovation, and when it reopens there will be three screens; the nearby hotel has 53 rooms. This is the worldview Richmond has brought to a 40-year bookselling career. She sees things for what they are, and in the same moment, she understands where they are going.
Richmond began bookselling in the early 1980s at Mr. Paperback, a chain of independent bookstores that thrived in central and northern Maine for half a century before closing in 2012. During her time at the bookstore, she staked out a straightforward role and held onto it. “I got a fair idea of the market and of what customers wanted, but without having any responsibilities for any paperwork or payroll,” she said.
Richmond eventually moved to the Waterville location of Mr. Paperback, where she worked until 2001. Her plans for a next step were derailed by 9/11, but eventually Richmond got word that the Children’s Book Cellar was for sale. She couldn’t say no.
To prepare for the purchase, Richmond went to her accountant and asked him to look over her stocks and savings. “I said, ‘Jim, sell enough so that I can pay for it and have some money to play with to start buying inventory,’ ” she said. “And so I bought it. I bought it outright.”
Richmond took over in 2002 as the fourth owner of the store, which opened originally in 1987. When the Mr. Paperback chain closed, she bought bookshelves from them, but she has otherwise kept the same 1,000-sq.-ft. space, overflowing with children’s books.
As the store’s sole employee, working the counter nine to five from Tuesday through Saturday, Richmond has raised a generation of readers, whom she remembers with the same level of detail she used in her descriptions of the arts organizations of Waterville. There was Margaret, who began coming in with her family while vacationing in the summer. A history buff, Richmond started the little girl on Ron Roy’s Capital Mystery series. She later attended Northeastern, studying archaeology.
Then there was Thomas, the son of a Colby College faculty member, who took up the Redwall series by Brian Jacques at age 10 at Richmond’s suggestion. Then he moved to the Hardy Boys, insisting on reading them all in order, and refusing to move ahead when a copy of #33 could not be found.
“When he graduated high school, he friended me on Facebook, and went off to Princeton, and is now working in Mountain View for Google,” Richmond said. “Those are the things that just make this such a special, special job.”
Children’s Book Cellar has had its ups and downs, and Richmond continues to profess a dislike for the business aspects of running the store. But when it comes to the books on the shelves, she has an easy confidence. “I know the books and I know my customers,” she said.
During the pandemic, the many arts organizations and other charities in town that Richmond mentions have turned to her for just that reason, placing a steady stream of large orders for children’s book giveaways, reading groups, and charities.
As the new landscape emerges around the store, Richmond said she is interested to see what a successor might do with the Children’s Book Cellar and is eyeing the steps it will take to make it welcoming for a new owner, should a buyer come along. A few years ago she received an indie bookstore grant from James Patterson and used it to install LED lighting. She has also been adding a growing section of books for adults alongside the brimming shelves of children’s books.
But for now, Richmond said the warmth of community that she experiences because of the bookstore has been deeply meaningful, especially during the pandemic. In early September, she recalled, she went to a local restaurant, and as she wrapped up her meal a woman came over and introduced herself, asking, “You’re the woman who’s got the bookstore in Waterville, right?” When Richmond said yes, the woman replied, “I just want you to know how much I love what you do and what you’re doing. And I’m so happy that you’re there.”
“It was like, wow,” Richmond said. “Out of the clear blue sky. This is great.”