by Kat Georges
Our spotlight on independent bookstores takes us this month up north to beautiful Brunswick, Maine, home of the iconic indie Gulf of Maine Books run by Beth Leonard and Gary Lawless. Brunswick is famously the site of Bowdoin College, whose graduates have included literary icons Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Lucien Carr. And, in Brunswick—while her husband was teaching at Bowdoin—Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her transformative novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Gulf of Maine Books extends this literary tradition into the present with a wide offering of contemporary literature, classics, books on Maine history, First Peoples’ titles, and an outstanding, deep poetry collection. Gary is himself an award-winning poet, and his long white hair and flowing beard make him a memorable figure in the literary scene. We talked to Beth and Gary about the history—and future—of this wonderful cultural hub.
KG: Tell us about the start of Gulf of Maine books in Bruswick, Maine—how did your unique bookstore come to be?
We (Beth Leonard and Gary Lawless) started Gulf of Maine Books early in 1979. We had both been working in a local chain bookstore, had learned a little about running a bookstore, and had learned what we did and did not want to do as booksellers. We wanted to open a bookstore emphasizing small press, literary, and regional publishing. We believed in the old Whole Earth Catalog message of the times: books as tools, books as resources, books to build better lives, better community, better worlds. At the time we were interested in bioregional and watershed consciousness, so we named our bookstore for the larger watershed within which we wanted to live and do business—the Gulf of Maine.
KG: While you carry a wide selection of contemporary titles, Gulf of Maine stands out for its collections of books other stores often overlook. Tell us about what draws you to specialize in each of these. Any other popular categories in your collection?
We were especially interested in making available titles which we were not seeing in the chain stores—small presses, regional titles, local authors and local ideas. We wanted to have books about and especially by Indigenous authors, by local authors, by women, by what we thought of then as the gay and lesbian book community (this was 1979). We wanted to have a good nature and environment section, a womens section, good books for kids, and a large poetry wall. This does not necessarily spell big success for a bookstore.
We grew slowly, and in 1980 we moved to a larger space. In 1995 we moved again, to our present space. This space gives us the room to carry much of what we would like to feature, as well as having a small make-do space for readings and events. We traveled out to events like anti nuclear and anti-clearcutting rallies. We had a book booth for 39 years at the Common Ground Fair, put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners. Events helped us to find new customers, and to create our own bookstore character. Because of Common Ground Fair, We still have a large farming and gardening section.
KG: What steps did you take during the past year-and-a-half of pandemic to keep Gulf of Maine going—not only the bookstores itself, but the tight knit community you’ve built of writers and readers?
We have been slow to move into the future. We do not have a website, so we can’t really do much online ordering (although we do business through bookshop.org) The pandemic was very hard for us. For 14 months we went from being shut down to doing curbside pickup, taking orders by email and phone. This was a really hard way to do business, but we had many loyal customers who kept on ordering from us, buying from us, keeping us in business.
KG: Maine is known as the “Vacation State.” Do you have a different group of customes in Winter vs. Summer. How do you keep the appeal going during those cold months?
We did get to open back up this summer (still asking that masks be worn). Maine is yes “Vacationland”, and summer is a very busy season for us. We have a lot of new and repeat visitor customers over the summer. The Holiday season is also busy for us, but we do have a steady, year-round customer base, wonderful people who continue buying books as our lives move forward.
KG: What are a few of your favorite bookstore-reltated memories of the 40+ years you’ve run Gulf of Maine?
We have had many wonderful events at the bookstore, including readings and signings with Nanao Sakaki, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest, and Brooke Williams, Tabitha King, Sister Helen Prejean, Andre Codrescu, Carolyn Chute, Ward Churchill, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Simon Pettet, and many other authors, as well as a long list of local authors [including poet Lisa Panepinto, author of the 3RP book, On This Borrowed Bike).
KG: What are you thoughts about selling books online—has this worked well for you over the past year?
We are trying to move somehow into the 21st century. Sometime quite soon our first website will be up and running (we already have an instagram account @gulfofmainebooks23) Once we have that website we hope to do more with online sales and perhaps selling some used and out of print titles online as well.
KG: Any new plans in the coming year for Gulf of Maine?
As Indigenous Peoples Day approaches, we are happy to spotlight our section of books relating to Native Peoples, a section we have had since opening 41 years ago. We try to have in stock everything available from Indigenous populations around the Gulf of Maine. Recent local titles include Sherri Mitchell’s Sacred Instructions and The Gatherings by Shirley Hager and Mawopiyane. These join a number of of Indigenous authors from around the continent, including Robin Wall Kimmerer, David Treuer, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Silko, Tanya Tagaq, and Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.Our poetry section reflects this interest as well, including poet Laureate Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, Ophelia Zepeda, and local poets Mihku Paul and Jason Grunstrum Anthony.
KG: What’s your favorite thing about being a bookstore owner?
We really enjoy getting to meet and talk with our customers, and turning them on to new authors, new ideas, new possibilities. That makes being in the store fun, and each day new books and new people come in the front door. There is always something new to read, and we never quite catch up. For 41 years we have had the pleasure of working together in a very enjoyable community of books and readers, enjoying the conversations and friendships that have come our way, and all of the books, all of the books, arriving every day!