Holding court behind the counter as two men from a local band walk through the store’s glass door, Gary Lawless asks: “What’s a drummer who’s lost his girlfriend?”
It’s quiet for a beat.
“Homeless,” he exclaims.
Then, leaning forward to display a broad smile beneath his long, white beard, he adds, “Or better yet, what’s a bookseller who’s lost his girlfriend?” He chuckles.
These sorts of interactions, familiar—patient, uninhibited, are no rarity at Gulf of Maine Books. Indeed, Lawless and his wife Beth Leonard have been having conversations much like these every day, six days a week, since opening their bookstore in 1979.
Lawless and Leonard, both native Mainers from Belfast and Brunswick respectively, founded Gulf of Maine Books 39 years ago with a mission: stock and sell books that mattered to them.
“Initially, we wanted to create a little book store that sold a lot of interesting independent stuff as well as major publishers and the books we were interested in as well, hoping that that would bring enough people in and create a community of readers who would keep coming back,” said Lawless.
Prior to the store’s opening, both Lawless and Leonard had worked in other bookstores; however, for Lawless in particular, the journey to founding his own store was not an altogether traditional one. After graduating from Colby College, Lawless went to California instead of graduate school to live and work as an apprentice with his then favorite poet, Gary Snyder. A little while into his sojourn on the West coast however, a friend of Lawless’ wrote to him explaining that he planned to open a bookstore in Lewiston and wondered if Lawless would want to join. Accepting the offer, Lawless took to the highway in 1973 with a sign reading “MAINE” and made his way back across the country.
After a year in Lewiston, Lawless relocated to a different branch of the store in Brunswick, located right at the gates of the town’s then naval air station. Lawless worked at this store for five years, but eventually he and Leonard tired of the books they were selling—the top selling categories were romance novels and sex magazines due to the proximity of the store to the station—and the disagreements they kept facing with the store.
“The bookstore we worked in wouldn’t let us have a women’s issues section, and we argued about that until they agreed but it had to be next to the cooking section. This was 1974,” explained Lawless. “Then they didn’t want us to have a gay and lesbian section so when we opened this store we had a big gay and lesbian section.”
Eager to break free of these constraints, the two decided to open Gulf of Maine and were pleased to discover they could now serve the pockets of customers searching for books that were not available at regional stores like the one where they had previously worked.
While Gulf of Maine’s curated selection of books appeals to the vast majority of its customers, it has on occasion, elicited criticism from passersby in search of the latest Fox News related book or, as Lawless jokes, a New York Yankees book.
With time, the business has moved around, seeing three different locations (a Naval Station location, a location in the space that now houses Henry and Marty’s and now the Maine Street location), and the demographic of readers has shifted and expanded with it.
“We’re down the street from Bowdoin, and between the Bowdoin reading crowd, the Brunswick reading crowd and the Naval Air Station reading crowd, there was a big difference in what they wanted to read,” said Lawless. “This was a much bigger space than we had before, so when we moved up here we gained a number of customers. At our other space we were kind of the ‘hippie, weirdo’ bookstore, and we moved up here and all of a sudden we were just kind of an independent bookstore.”
Throughout their time at Gulf of Maine, Lawless and Leonard have sought to use books as tools to help create a unified and more informed community. They have incorporated events such as readings and lectures into the store’s routine all the while keeping community at the core of the store’s values.
“This is different from standing in a cash register at Barnes & Noble. Here we learn about our customers; we become friends with them; we suggest things to them which they might actually want to read because we’ve seen what they’re interested in. That kind of relationship is so much better than just being cashiers behind a counter,” said Lawless.
As for the community, 39 years later the customers are still returning to wander through the narrow aisles of vibrantly colored spines, to hear poetry and lectures by visiting authors and to take a few minutes to hear the latest from Gary and Beth.
“See you next week, Gary,” a customer calls, waving as the door chimes shut.
“See you then,” he replies.