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Brick-and-mortar bookstores might be on the decline, but in Presque Isle, one new entrepreneur still has faith in the power of the independent bookstore to create a market. And she’s experiencing success in just a few weeks since opening.
Laura Hale, with her husband Brandon and their children Lucy and Benny, recently cut the ribbon on the enterprise, Neighborhood Books, at 375 Main St.
“People say that people don’t read anymore, but I don’t think that’s true,” Hale told Mainebiz. “A really exciting thing for me — and my favorite part of being a bookseller so far — is people saying that they haven’t read in a long time, but having a local bookstore is making them excited about getting back into reading.”
Hale grew up in nearby Mars Hill and lives in Presque Isle.
She was employed as a social worker for several years but gave that up four years ago to be a stay-at-home parent. For the past five years, she’s also sold books for Usborne Publishing, a British publisher of children’s books.
“I did lots of book fairs at local schools and libraries. I was selling books like crazy,” she said.
She wanted to branch out to other distributors and demographics. Then a lightbulb moment lit up.
“About a year and a half ago, we went to a local independent bookstore and I looked at my husband and said, ‘I really want to open a bookstore,’” she recalled. “He got kind of excited and said, ‘Well, let’s look into it.’”
Hale has always loved books and reading and bookstores and libraries. Her husband and children share the passion, she said.
So opening a bookstore felt like a natural next step.
Hale contacted New Ventures Maine, a career support service operating under the University of Maine System. A New Venture microenterprise specialist, Karin Petrin, met with Hale via online conference once or twice a week and helped her write a business plan and secure start-up funding.
“She walked through every step with me,” Hale said. “There’s no way I could have done it without that service.”
Hale also took New Ventures classes such as marketing.
“I would love for more people who want to start a small business to know of them,” Hale added of the service. “It was just honestly amazing.”
Late last year, she and her husband started keeping their eyes open for a possible location in their hometown. In June, they found an affordable spot of about 450 square feet that was available to lease on Main Street.
She applied for low-interest loans offered through the city’s Presque Isle Development
Fund and a Micro-Finance Loan program, receiving all together $35,000 to primarily finance inventory along with a point-of-sale system and other start-up needs.
Once she learned that she would be able to secure the loans, the couple signed the lease. The building owner gave them two months of free rent because they were a new business. Hale’s husband is an accountant and is assisting with bookkeeping.
There wasn’t much to do in the way of fitting up the space, which is wide open and simply needed shelving and simple furniture.
“My husband and I drove to IKEA in Massachusetts one week and got all our bookcases,” she said.
For inventory, she’s now working with a wholesale company and five publishing houses. To navigate this wider world of books, she got information from the publishing houses about top-sellers, listens to a podcast about books, and also considers books her own family enjoys.
“That was the hardest part, because I wanted to make sure I was getting what people wanted,” she said. “It took me three weeks to a month to build all my orders.”
She said she knew from her experience selling Usborne books that the community would probably be receptive to the enterprise.
“My customers through Usborne were always telling me they wanted a bookstore,” she said. “I’m active on social media so I’d post about it on my personal page quite often, and people were so encouraging. And they’ve definitely shown up since I’ve opened.”
The business model includes both new and used books, “bookish stuff” like totes and bookmarks, gift items, games, puzzles and stickers, which are selling like crazy. Hale plans to offer book readings, signing and clubs once the pandemic eases.
The nearest bookstore to her, she says, is in Fort Kent, nearly 60 miles away. The last time Presque Isle had a bookstore was probably around 15 years ago, she says.
The store fits with a downtown trend.
“I think Main Street and the downtown are making a comeback,” she said. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s taught us that small businesses are really important to our community.”
Early in the process, she was nervous.
“Most people say, ‘You can’t have a bookstore these days’ and ‘People won’t order and buy from you because everything’s online,’” she said. “But it’s been three weeks so far and we’re already past what we thought we would have sold at half a year. So I’m really happy with that and just trying to keep up at this point.”