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Independent Bookstore Day marks fifth year

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Independent Bookstore Day marks fifth year (edge file photo/Sheridan Kelley Adams)

A celebration of independent bookstores is marking its fifth year.

Independent Bookstore Day (or Indie Bookstore Day) began life in 2014 as California Bookstore Day before expanding into a more nationally-oriented event the following year.

IBD lands on the last Saturday in April – April 27 this year. It’s a time when many bookstores will feature special items, author signings and other events as they participate in the festivities and embrace the joys of the indie bookseller. You can find out more at www.indiebookstoreday.com.

If Independent Bookstore Day seems reminiscent of last weekend’s Record Store Day, there’s a very good reason for that. The initial California celebration was actually inspired by the ongoing success displayed by Record Store Day.

In honor of Independent Bookstore Day – and independent bookstores everywhere – we thought it appropriate to chat with some of the folks at Downtown Bangor’s beloved bookstore The Briar Patch about what draws someone to the book business, what a bookstore can mean to a community and even a reading recommendation or two.

Briar Patch owner Gibran Graham and bookseller Abby Rice were kind enough to answer a few questions ahead of the celebration – The Briar Patch will have a number of IBD-exclusive items on hand from 10 a.m. on – and share with us some of their thoughts.

(Please note: The Briar Patch is only one of the many quality independent bookstores that are scattered all over our state, each of which possessed of its own unique character and a similar devotion to the business of the printed page.)

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How long have you been in the book business?

GG Let’s just say my experience predates the commercial internet -- LOL. But seriously, I got my first job stocking books when I was just 14. I loved it so much that I came back to the bookselling industry several times over the last 30 or so years before buying The Briar Patch in 2017.

AR: I started at a Barnes and Noble in Virginia 9 years ago, worked at Book-a-Million when I moved back to Bangor in 2013, and I’ve been at the Briar Patch since 2015! There were some breaks in between where I worked non-book jobs, but bookselling always called me back.

What is your book background?

AR: I honestly don’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading. My mom taught me at a very young age- like 3 or 4. All through school I would get in trouble for reading under my desk or when I wasn’t supposed to. I think a few school librarians would let me check out more books than I was technically allowed! I’ve always been drawn to reading- just losing myself in different stories and experiences. We moved a lot when I was a kid, and books I loved were definitely a way I kept my footing, even when I was somewhere new.

GG: I’ve always loved to read and was fortunate to grow up with parents who really supported that. When I fell in love with comics, my stepfather used to drive me to another town so I could get new issues when they were released. I thought he was just helping feed my comic habit, but he really he was turning me into a voracious reader. As a bookstore owner now, I love seeing kids come in with their families and discover things that help turn them into voracious readers too. My goal is to stock a variety of books so there’s something to pique every kid’s interest.

What drew you to the idea of operating a bookstore?

GG: I was working at The Briar Patch as marketing manager for its previous owner and she gave me a lot of freedom to put on a variety of events and try new things. I loved it — the connectedness of operating in the heart of the community, the way the right book can open a person’s world, etc. It was a wonderful experience working at a local, indie bookstore — which is a lot like the bookstore I started at all those years ago. When Cathy decided she was ready to retire, I realized I was ready to own.

What drew you to the idea of working in a bookstore?

AR: The discounts! No, I’m mostly kidding. I’ve always enjoyed sharing my love for reading with others, and kid’s bookselling is unique in that what you recommend to a kid might change their life. They might see themselves represented in a book for the first time or find a way to relate to someone else that they couldn’t before. Bookselling is a way of reaching people that I adore. Plus, I love telling people what to read.

You’ve worked at larger stores as well as at smaller indies. What are some of the biggest differences? Any similarities that people might find surprising?

AR: I really enjoyed my time at Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million. The people who work at those stores largely care about what they’re reading and selling as much as any indie bookseller, they’re just tied up by a lot of corporate stuff. I enjoy the freedom of working in an indie because it is so much easier for us to curate what we carry based on what people are asking for!  And the community of indie booksellers is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, especially in New England.

How do you view the place of the bookstore in the cultural/social fabric of your town in 2019? What does it mean to your town to have a place like The Briar Patch?

GG: Books bring people together. Look at our annual Harry Potter birthday celebration. We drew an estimated 5,000 people last year — people who fell in love with J.K. Rowling’s series and wanted to celebrate it. That’s pretty powerful. But so is seeing people come in, helping them find the right book and having them come back to say how much they enjoyed it.

AR: This is something I struggle to answer in just a few sentences, but I will say this – part of what drew me to working at the Briar Patch is the fact that an indie bookstore can help a community thrive. We facilitate author visits in schools, we strive to have a diverse collection, so people can see all walks of life reflected, and we hope that we are considered a cornerstone of the community. I think it’s best represented with our annual Harry Potter Celebration- thousands of people turn out to celebrate a 20-year-old kids’ series, with the help of so many Bangor-area organizations and businesses. It blows me away.

What’s your favorite thing about working with books?

AR: Helping people find the next book they’ll fall in love with. Honestly it almost feels like a game or challenge to me- a customer comes in, says they don’t know what they want or they’re shopping for a child they don’t know well, and we work together to narrow down what would be a great read! It’s especially rewarding when a customer comes back and tells me what they thought of the book- that’s probably my favorite part of the job.

GG: There are so many worlds and characters just waiting to be explored.

What are you reading right now?

GG: My TBR pile(s) are huge and I’m always in a dozen books at any one time. Currently I’m finishing up “Hollow Kingdom,” a debut novel out in August that tells the story of a zombie apocalypse from the perspective of animals. It’s “The Incredible Journey” meets “The Walking Dead.” Bizarre but a lot of insight on the human condition. 

AR: Full disclosure - one of the biggest perks of being a bookseller is getting copies of books before they come out. So I just finished reading “Steel Tide,” the sequel to last fall’s “Seafire” by Natalie Parker, which can basically be summed up as “Mad Max meets Pirates of the Caribbean” and “lady pirates out for revenge”. It’s amazing. “Steel Tide” is out this fall, but the first book can be found at the Briar Patch!

What’s your favorite book? I recognize there are probably a million ways to answer this one, so just choose whatever feels right in the moment.

GG: That’s a bit like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. But I’ll tell you a few that I love. First, my favorite new book is by a Maine author and is being released in May. It’s called “The Missing Season” and it’s the latest YA novel by Gillian French. Set in Maine, it tells the story of a town terrorized by a creature they call the Mumbler who steals and kills a teen each October. More than a thriller though, it’s a story of friendship, relationships and fitting in. The second is a series called Arlo Finch by John August, who was at the store for a book signing recently. These middle-grade books are exciting and filled with adventure. I’m also partial to local author Sarah Walker Caron’s cookbooks, The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook and One-Pot Pasta. She has a really accessible approach to cooking that’s easy but flavorful.

AR: Easy- “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle. I read it at least twice a year. Meg Murray is iconic for all girls who never felt like they quite fit in.

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Books are important.

It can be easy for people to forget that, especially in a world filled with content-laden screens clamoring for your attention. And while there are plenty of benefits to such a world, one of the downsides is the gradual disappearance of the physical book.

Or rather, it almost was.

There was a period not long ago when it looked like the era of the bookstore as a viable entity was coming to an end. The advent of online retailers and e-readers marked distinct shifts both in how books were purchased and how they were consumed. And many booksellers – from massive chains down to neighborhood shops – were unable to adapt and so fell by the wayside.

But those that were able to adapt, well … they’re doing all right.

Yes, many business owners wound up struggling in the early part of the 21st century (over 1,000 bookstores closed in the period between 2000 and 2007, according to the American Booksellers Association). But the numbers have rebounded; ABA membership has risen considerably over the past decade.

Independent bookstores have shown a remarkable resilience. They have weathered storms of all shapes and sizes and remain as significant cultural and commercial touchstones in their respective cities. They serve a vital purpose in a community.

Bookstores are important.

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Books are important.

I’ve always loved being in a bookstore. Wandering the aisles, scanning scores of spines and wondering if something will catch your eye. Hoping that something will catch your eye.

While it’s tough to argue against certain conveniences brought about by developments in technology, there’s still no tech to replicate the feeling of a holding a book in your hands. You can’t feel its weight or riffle its pages when it’s on a screen.

Confession time: I was a full-on bookstore loiterer when I was younger. I didn’t want to go to the places that most of my peers wanted to go. I wanted to go and spend hours looking at books; I loved them.

Still do.

(None of this is possible, by the way, without plenty of complicit bookstore employees and owners. There were a lot – and I mean a LOT – of bookstore folks who happily looked the other way as a kid hung around for hours and then left without buying anything more often than not. Because bookstore folks love books, too – and they can smell their own. I don’t remember your names – if I ever knew them – but I’ll always be grateful for your understanding.)

And while I don’t necessarily spend as much time doing that as I used to, I still have nothing but fond memories. The sounds, the smells – I relished it all. I never worried about belonging when I was at a bookstore, because I already did.

Bookstores are important.

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Whether you head out on this Independent Bookstore Day or just drop in any old time during the year’s 364 others, pay a visit to your local independent bookstore. Books are important – and so are the many small businesses that sell them.

“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” – Henry Ward Beecher

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