Brunswick independent bookstore going strong at 37

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BRUNSWICK — Gary Lawless stood behind the counter of his bookstore Feb. 25, and told a pair of young customers that his store was older than they were.

In two days, Gulf of Maine Books at 134 Maine St. would be 37 years old.

Lawless was explaining this to Ian MacDonald, a local drum teacher who was accompanied by his student, Aaron. They come in often to browse Lawless’ book selection, but also to just hang out.

“We come in about every week,” MacDonald said, thumbing through a humor book.

Lawless teased the two musicians about their instrument choice, joking it wasn’t often you saw drummers “not alone.”

During their conversation, Lawless was interrupted by a phone call from Richard Loren, former road manager of the Grateful Dead.

After hanging up, Lawless launched into a story of how once, to prepare for a show the Dead were playing at the pyramids in Egypt during a full-moon eclipse, Loren flew to the country seven separate times.

“They lost a huge amount of money on that,” he said. “But it was a wild time.”

Unlike the Grateful Dead’s Egypt show, Lawless’ bookstore is not a money-loser, and is showing no signs of decline. He says ever since he and his wife, Beth Leonard, opened the store in 1979, sales have grown every year.

As Aaron and MacDonald left, they promised to be back for the “birthday party” Lawless was throwing at the store Saturday.

Lawless hit them with another drum joke, and they laughed.

“This is one of the reasons I love coming here,” MacDonald said.

4 decades on Maine Street

Gulf of Maine’s story is emblematic of the unlikely resilience of independent bookstores in a changing economy.

Independent bookstores in the U.S. have made a rebound since the financial crisis, according to data from the American Booksellers Association, increasing their number by 27 percent since 2009.

In Maine, independent bookstores have reported increased sales in recent years after the demise of large booksellers like Borders.

But trends aside, part of the reason for Gulf of Maine’s success may be Lawless himself. He’s not just selling books.

One woman came in last week complaining that her grandson wouldn’t read, except for a humor series called “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” She asked if Lawless had any more books like it.

“Have you heard of ‘Big Nate?'” he asked. She had not.

Ten minutes later, after a second endorsement from MacDonald, who was still in the store at the time, the woman walked out with the first two books in the series.

Earlier in the day, another customer, Jan Bodwell, came in to pick up a book she had ordered from Lawless, “Falling Upward” by Richard Rohr. She said her reading group orders books from Gulf of Maine instead of purchasing online.

“I’ve been living in Brunswick for 50 years,” she said. “So I must have been coming here for a while now.”

Gulf of Maine was not always at its current location. Lawless and Leonard first opened the bookstore in a rundown building next to the Joshua Chamberlain house, which has since been demolished.

The two met when Lawless moved to Brunswick in the early ’70s to work at the Bookland bookstore at Cook’s Corner. She was one of his customers.

Lawless grew up in Belfast, which, according to him, means he’s “from away.” But he and Leonard, who’s from Brunswick, decided it would be “interesting, if not fruitful, to open an independent bookstore,” he said.

They soon moved the store from its first location to what is now Henry & Marty’s restaurant at 61 Maine St. They stayed there for 15 years, until 1995, supported by regular customers like Bodwell and by summer tourists and Bowdoin College families.

They saw an opportunity, though, when Macbean’s bookstore at 134 Maine St. closed. According to Lawless, he and Leonard bought the retail space and everything in it – books, shelves, and furniture – in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

When the sale closed, Lawless and Leonard sent out a postcard to all of their regular customers, asking them to come and help them move up Maine Street.

“Sixty-five people showed up, and we got it all done in one day,” Lawless said.

With food and beer set up at the new store, “it was more like a party than work,” he added.

And the party continued; sales kept going up. One local couple came to Gulf of Maine for a first date.

They had their wedding in the poetry section.

‘The Last Waltz?’

But Lawless doesn’t know how many more years the Gulf of Maine will stay open.

“(It’s) a finite amount,” he said Thursday. “I’m about to be 65.”

He said, however, there’s the potential that someone might step up as a successor.

“A couple of people have mentioned (the possibility) in the last year,” he said. “And a lot of people are telling us we can’t go out of business.”

A woman in the back of the store piped up.

“I agree,” she said.

Where will Gulf of Maine’s customers go if the store closes? Books can be purchased anywhere, but a community cannot.

As another customer checked out Thursday afternoon, she told Lawless about a movie she’d recently seen, “The Lady in the Van.”

“It was good,” she said. “It keeps you thinking.”

Lawless smiled.

“That’s what we try to do here, too,” he said.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Gulf of Maine Books owner Gary Lawless, left, chats with customer Donna Olson on Feb. 25. The Brunswick store has been in business 37 years.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.