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June 23, 2021

Looking for an expansion opportunity, Sherman's ended up with three

Photo / Maureen Milliken Jeff Curtis, co-owner of Sherman's Maine Coast Book Shops, takes a break from stocking the shelves in the new Rockland location, one of three new stores the company is opening this summer.

When the owners of Sherman's Maine Coast Book Shops decided over the winter to open another store to replace the one they closed in Camden at the beginning of the pandemic, they found a great spot in the Topsham Fair Mall.

The 6,600-square-foot space nestled between fellow Maine family-owned businesses Lamey Wellehan and Renys would be the chain's biggest, and take away some of the sting from the Camden closing.

Then a broker they were working with told Sherman's owners Jeff Curtis and Maria Boord about available space in the Windham Mall. This one, too, was next to a Renys. 

"We said, 'That's a good opportunity, too,'" Curtis said. "So now we're up to two."

Around the same time, Parker Howard, of Priority Real Estate Group, who they'd worked with on the Topsham site, pitched a vacant standalone store in Rockland.

Curtis and Boord liked that location as well, particularly because it was in the same area as the closed store, where they'd left behind a loyal clientele.

"We weren't looking for three stores, we were looking for an opportunity," Curtis told Mainebiz as he stocked shelves in the Rockland store last week.

But three stores is what they got. Curtis said they were struck this past winter by the customer loyalty, both online and at bricks-and-mortar locations. This spring, on Independent Booksellers Day, the owners announced they would open three stores.

Supply-chain challenges, along with the logistics of opening three stores at once, have made it a juggle, but the Rockland store is expected to be the first to open, Fourth of July week. The other two will open by the end of the summer.

It's a far different landscape this summer than it was in March 2020 for the family-owned chain, which will have eight stores with the new locations.

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Sherman's Maine Coast Book Shops' Topsham Fair Mall location is expected to open by the end of the summer.

New landscape, new model

When the Camden store closed for good 15 months ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed like a death knell for the retail industry. Curtis said at the time it was a hard decision, and he and Boord still feel that now. But it was a leased location, and with the uncertainty of the pandemic, they had no idea what they would face.

But customers from across the country who shop at Sherman's when they visit Maine, as well as local ones, kept coming, both online and when the stores reopened last summer. The company also reconfigured its website, featuring the top sellers from each store every week, and more.

Since October, Curtis and Boord doubled their sales forecast. Over the winter, they determined they had the resources to open another store.

The new stores push Sherman's old model to a new place — rather than downtown coastal tourist-rich towns, Windham and Topsham are inland. And none of the three new stores are in a downtown.

Curtis said that while the downtown model has worked for Sherman's since the first store opened in Bar Harbor in 1886, they found that during the pandemic, customers were going downtown just to shop at the book store. The three new locations all have ample parking, easing the challenge of finding a spot at most of the chain's other stores.

Curtis's father bought Sherman's Book Store, in Bar Harbor, from the Sherman family in 1962. Curtis opened the Boothbay store in 1989, and Freeport followed in 1999. Camden opened in 2004, and Portland in 2014. At the time, the company, which Curtis bought from his mother in 2006, was Sherman's Books & Stationery Stores. In 2015, after buying Damariscotta's Maine Coast Book Store, they changed the company's name to Sherman's Maine Coast Book Shops.

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Sherman's Maine Coast Book Shops' Rockland location is expected to open in the coming weeks.

A regional location

The Rockland store, at 47 Maverick St., has its roots in Maine family-owned business, good karma for the new owners. It was built as a LaVerdiere's drug store in 1986. Priority Group Real Estate, in Topsham, bought the building in 2003, and it was most recently an Aaron's rent-to-own furniture and appliance store.

"We hope this is more of a regional store," Curtis said, of the Rockland site. "We hope to pick up the customers who were coming to Camden, as well as maybe some new ones."

Howard, business development manager for Priority Real Estate, had helped on the Topsham location, which Sherman's is leasing from Kevin and Paul Kelly. Howard thought they might like the Rockland location, too.

"The fact that they had been in Camden, and I knew they wanted to be in that market" were factors, Howard said. The size and layout is also similar to Topsham.

He said both the Topsham and Rockland locations are notable for the amount of traffic that passes by. The Rockland location is on Route 17, the main Rockland-Augusta route, and near the intersection with U.S. Route 1.

The Topsham Fair Mall, just off Exit 31A of Interstate 295, is at the beginning of the Coastal Connector and gets an average of 54,000 drive-bys a day, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.

'It's a great halfway point between Portland and Augusta," Howard said, of the Topsham shopping area. Being next door to a Renys, too, means that there will be a lot of foot traffic.

Curtis and Boord said that they're excited about being next to Renys, both in Topsham and Windham. The Damariscotta store is also down the street from the first Renys store.

Maine-focused Maine stores

The Maine flavor doesn't stop at Sherman's door. The stores make an effort to stock not only books by Maine authors, but gifts and crafts made in Maine, Boord, the store's director of operations, said.

Boord said that in the towns that get a lot of tourist traffic, the stores have more souvenir-type gifts. "We'll let the customers decide" what they like in Topsham, Rockland and Windham, she said.

Overall, Maine-made items are their strongest gift items, including fudge, jam, salt water taffy and other packaged treats from places like Maine's Own Treats, of Bar Harbor, and Downeast Fudge, of Boothbay; maple items from Kinney's Sugarhouse, in Knox, and more.

The stores have always had partnerships with local businesses. "But since the pandemic, we've really nurtured our relationships with local vendors," Boord said.

"With the pandemic, customers really showed us what they wanted," she said.

She said store staffs have a lot of input into what sells and what doesn't, and that extends, of course, to books.

One new feature during the pandemic was that each store takes a turn listing its best-sellers on the website, and those go up on a featured shelf in the stores, too, with a sign, "As seen on" Boord said it helps promote books that may fly under the radar at some stores.

A recent top seller was the Robert McCloskey classic Maine children's book, "Blueberries for Sal."

"Who would have guessed that?" she said, with a laugh.

Keeping with the Maine-made strategy, the chain also has a robust consignment program for authors (dealing with the writers, not a publisher or distributor), and sells books by hundreds of Maine authors, who also get a tab on the website.

"We're really proud of that," Curtis said. "We well a lot of books on consignment." 

Curtis and Boord said that, besides selling books, they see Sherman's stores as a way to help the small businesses that also help them.

"We wouldn't be here without them," said Boord. "We support them, and they support us."

They also focus on taking care of staff, and plan to hire up to 15 new people with the new stores, at a starting rate of $15 an hour.

Curtis said one advantage of the Rockland site is that Sherman's was able to buy it. That makes four of the chain's stores that it owns, and four, including Topsham, Windham and Portland, that it leases. 

When the Camden store was closed in March 2020, uncertainty about how to make payroll and rent was a concern, Curtis said. Owning gives the owners a comfort level.

He said the pandemic-driven decision was a gut check. Now, with three stores to open, the concerns are about when the shelving fixtures will arrive, and when subcontractors will be available. It's an exciting place to be, even if opening dates aren't quite nailed down.

Reflecting on the past 15 months, he said, as far as this summer's frenzy, "We just decided we weren't going to be nervous about it."

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