Walking into the Gulf of Maine bookstore in Brunswick is like entering into a different era. Opened 38 years ago by Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard, the bookstore holds no best-sellers. Instead, Beat-generation authors plaster one wall, Maine legends line another and poetry climbs from the floor to the ceiling.

Lawless and Leonard sit in the middle of the store taking turns attending to and chatting with customers. They reveal their intimacy with books little by little through stories of their time in college and of the store’s inauguration on Maine Street.

The owners met in 1974 at a Brunswick bookstore called Bookland. Lawless worked at the bookstore and Leonard was a frequent customer.

Lawless said he and Leonard bonded over a shared interest in reading, particularly in reading poetry.

The two went on to open their own store that would carry small publications, poetry and literature: “All the stuff that wasn’t commercial enough for the chain,” said Leonard.
“We didn’t have any expectations of making money. We just wanted to promote these writers we loved,” said Leonard.

The current collection and decor at Gulf of Maine reflect the alternative lifestyle of Lawless and Leonard prior to opening the bookstore.

Lawless spent his years after college learning from Gary Snyder, environmental activist and member of the Beat Generation. Although he grew up in Belfast, Maine, and went to Colby College, Lawless developed an interest in East Asian religion after reading “The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac in high school.

The book’s protagonist is based on Gary Snyder himself. Lawless wrote to Snyder saying, “I don’t want to go to graduate school, I just want to come live at your house and be your apprentice.” After graduation, he hitchhiked to California to live with Snyder.

“It was so different from the life I lived in little sheltered Maine in the 50’s and 60’s. All of sudden I was in California where every guy I met had a pony tail. Nineteen seventy-three—what a wild time to be there,” said Lawless.

“I was opened up to this wider world of literature, art, music and dance ... that I wouldn’t have even known about if I stayed in one place,” he said.

Eventually, Lawless returned to Maine, where he started to work at Bookland and would eventually meet Leonard.

Lawless explained that upon returning to Maine, he “sort of fell into this [job].”
“There’s a semi-logical progression—my life has always had to do with books, literature and writing,” he said.

Lawless was a writer-in-residence for two years at Preble Street, an organization in Portland that provides services for the homeless. Today, in addition to co-owning Gulf of Maine, Lawless runs writing workshops for underserved communities and teaches at the Midcoast Senior College.

“Last semester, I taught a Dante class at the Midcoast Senior College, so I had people that age talking about hell for eight weeks. It was really different from talking to a room full of 18 to 21-year-olds, since these people are close to the end of their lives and thinking about what is after the end of life.”

Running their own bookstore makes it easy to decide what kind of literature they want to sell.
“We do make it our business to push other kinds of literature that we consider useful to the conversation of our community,” said Lawless.

Gulf of Maine does not carry any “right-wing commentators,” said Lawless.
“But our regular customers know that and know we own our opinions and curate the books to reflect that,” he added.

The bookstore also hosts events such as readings and signings with famous authors.
“We had Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben—some of our heroes,” said Lawless.

Aside from the deep connection the store has with authors and publishers, the best part of the job, according to both Lawless and Leonard, is getting to know their customers.

“I love our customers—the people we meet. In a good bookstore, you meet good people,” added Leonard.

“It’s not like a grocery store, where you usually do not tell stories to clerk. Here, people tell you stories,” said Lawless.

Lawless added, “Bookstores are a community center for ideas and access to information. Information is tools. We try to provide the information we see as tools to social change and community building.”

On November 4th, Gulf of Maine will host a reading by translators of Zabel Yesayan’s acclaimed novels.