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April 10, 2017

Purchaser of Blue Hill bookstore finding new ways to beat Amazon

Courtesy / Blue Hill Books Blue Hill Books, at 26 Pleasant St. in Blue Hill, sold Feb. 1 to long-time employee Samantha Haskell.
Courtesy / Blue Hill Books Samantha Haskell, the new owner of Blue Hill Books, has conceived of a community-supported bookseller program similar to community-supported agriculture.

BLUE HILL — Samantha Haskell’s recent purchase of Blue Hill Books is a vote of confidence in the viability of bookstores in the digital age.

In a sale finalized Feb. 1, Nick Sichterman and Mariah Hughs sold the store to Haskell, a long-time employee, in a privately arranged lease-to-buy agreement.

Sichterman and Hughs founded the store in 1986 as a smaller business behind their house, also on Pleasant Street. In 1992, they built the current store across the street. But seeking to retire, they put it up for sale in 2016.

“Mariah and I have long thought that Samantha would be the best person on the planet to take over the store when we retired and, luckily, she was interested,” Sichterman said in a press release on a website called Shelf Awareness, where the sale was first announced.

Blue Hill Books is a 1,700-square-foot store on two levels at 26 Pleasant St. in Blue Hill, the commercial center of the Blue Hill Peninsula, just west of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.

Haskell said she grew up in Blue Hill and knew the couple personally for a long time. She worked for them summers during her years at Bar Harbor-based College of the Atlantic. When she graduated in 2010, she went in full-time.

She said the three talked about the transition for a few years.

“Then all the pieces came together,” she said.

The store stocks a substantial backlist of general interest books, with various special sections such as children’s literature and travel guides. While there’s no data on customer numbers, the store has a solid customer base in Blue Hill, Haskell said. It’s open year-round, with the busiest months being July through September due to the increase in seasonal residents and visitors. And there’s enough business the rest of the year, she said, because Blue Hill residents tend to want to shop locally.

“We’re fortunate in Blue Hill to be part of a substantial community of readers and writers,” Haskell said.

Also, she noted, the closure of bookstores in Ellsworth and on Mount Desert Island has sent customers Blue Hill’s way.

Blue Hill already has significant daily traffic from the Tradewinds supermarket, Blue Hill Memorial Hospital and the YMCA. It is also seeing retail investment that is helping draw visitors, most recently Blue Hill Co-op proposal to move from 4 Ellsworth Road to a new site at South Street. Having magnets like the Arborvine wine bar and DeepWater Brewing Co. has also helped.

Financing the shop's future

The three put a lot of thought into when to make the transition, consulting with other booksellers. They decided February was great because it’s slower.

“It gives me time to get my feet under me before busy season starts,” Haskell said.

To mitigate slow sales during the off-season, Haskell has come up with a plan based on the community-supported agriculture concept.

“We started a program, the community-supported bookseller,” she said. “Customers are able to purchase what we’re calling shares — paying for a year’s worth or a quarter’s worth of books upfront, ranging from $250 to $1,000. It’s something we modeled after some of the farms in the area here, who do CSA programs. And there’s a local brewery that did community-supported beer. It seemed like it was working, but it’s a new idea in terms of bookstores, as far as I can tell. I’ve been pleased to see the response. It works for customers: It simplifies their ability to come in for books. And it’s a great way for people to feel like they can support the store during this transition: A lot of people are attached to this business, and a lot of people have asked how they could help. So it’s a win-win.”

Haskell’s interest in the store evolved from twin loves of reading and sustainable small businesses as integral to small communities.

“It’s about interacting with the community in a dynamic way,” she said. “Books are a platform of ideas to converse about, and bookstores can serve as nodes for information and community exchange that’s different from other retailers. And for me, it’s related to this place: I love Blue Hill, I love having grown up here and being here as an adult.”

To prepare for the transition, Haskell met with SCORE’s Ellsworth representative for mentoring and with Jay Friedlander, instructor of sustainable business at College of the Atlantic, and consulted with booksellers who underwent similar transitions.

The seller financing arrangement provides for incremental payments. To finance orders for the store's inventory, Haskell received a low-interest personal loan from a couple of community members who approached her about helping with the upfront expenses. Haskell doesn't plan any infrastructure changes, perhaps just more outdoor seating space with benches and tables in the shaded side yard.

“My plan is to keep doing what’s worked for 30 years,” she said. “Because the space was designed specifically as a bookstore, it’s high-functioning.”

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