This past Saturday, customers of all ages buzzed in and out of the trademark Brunswick store, Gulf of Maine Books, at its 40th anniversary celebration and sale. The Maine Street store has drawn readers and writers to Brunswick, from local high schoolers to best selling authors.
Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard, who founded and operate the bookstore to this day, pride themselves on making real connections with customers—something that has helped the store stay afloat during an era of online book sales and the closing of other bookstores in Brunswick.
“I think almost anyone who has been in Brunswick has interacted with Gary or Beth,” said Shawn Bayrd ’19, a customer at the anniversary event and life-long Brunswick resident. “They are very personal. They really want to get to know their customers.”
The two prefer to learn their customers’ names and can recount decades-old interactions with many of the people who walk through the large glass doors facing Maine Street.
Peter Simmons ’78, a previous director of the Bowdoin International Music Festival and passionate customer, has been coming to the store since his college days. Lawless and Leonard remember Simmons and his now-wife, Charlotte Agell ’81, a widely-published children’s author, visiting the store when they were college-age.
“It was sort of date night for [Simmons] and Charlotte every time [they] came to the store,” said Lawless. “[They’ve] been coming ever since. And then [their] children started coming here too.”
Simmons, popping into the store to recommend a new children’s book to Leonard and Lawless, was quick to respond to this comment, saying, “You know if I had any grandchildren I’d buy them books from here! It’s multigenerational.”
Customers marveled at the amount of people at Saturday’s celebration. Lines formed from the cash register to the doors and, due to the amount of people roaming the bookshelves, the walls felt closer together than usual.
A wide selection of books line those (sometimes overflowing) bookshelves, curated by the owners as well as the customers. If you have a recommendation, Lawless is all ears. The conviviality that the two owners create with shoppers around literature is their favorite part of owning the store.
“The combination of us being able to look at any book you want to and just having people come in and talking about books is great. Finding out what they like to read and the conversations and friendships that come out of that is beautiful,” said Lawless. “In 40 years we’ve made some really good friends and met some pretty amazing people.”
Some of these friends include Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award fellows. Lawless and Leonard are part of a literary family in Maine that includes many of the industry’s modern giants.
Most recently, the store hosted Jane Brox’s publishing party for her new book “Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives.” The book was named an Editors’ Choice by “The New York Times Book Review.” Brox, a former visiting professor of the College, is a Maine-based author who frequents Gulf of Maine Books.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Strout has also called Gulf of Maine Books one of her favorite bookstores. In a 2013 interview in The New York Times Book Review, Strout praised the owners for their willingness to purchase new books requested by customers.
Lawless himself is a widely published poet and received the Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize from the Maine Humanities Council in 2017. He was honored for using poetry to bring voices to refugee communities, veterans and developmentally disabled adults. He recently toured Italy giving readings and, thanks to the connections formed with customers, even once spent time at a Bowdoin Italian Studies teaching fellow’s parent’s home while abroad.
Leonard and Lawless’ vision of their bookstore coincides with their philosophy on art and community engagement: work hard to create space for artistic genius to take root, and you will watch wonderful things grow.
Susie Hanley, another attendee on Saturday said, “[The owners] are an integral part of the [Brunswick] community. In terms of social issues, community building with non-profit groups and their own art, of course.”
“It’s just my favorite bookstore,” Hanley added. “I hope they aren’t thinking about retirement!”