ROCKLAND — The city’s only year-round bookstore, hello hello books, can be hard to find.
Despite its 316 Main St. address, it’s tucked away in the back of coffee shop Rock City Cafe. Entry is through the coffee shop or a side door on Orient Street, a one-way side street off Main.
“We’re not always that visible,” said owner Lacy Simons Monday.
But someone important has found the store, and it’s big news, not only for hello hello, but for Rockland, booksellers and Maine in general.
Publishers Weekly has named hello hello books one of five finalists for 2019 Bookstore of the Year. The weekly trade magazine, which has been in publication since 1872, as well as its related website, is considered the authority on books and book selling in the industry.
Authors covet its reviews to use as blurbs on their books; book sellers, librarians and publishers pore over its pages to find out what’s hot.
“Publishers Weekly is the standard when it comes to trade news about the American literary landscape,” said Josh Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. “The publishers, librarians, booksellers, and literary agents I know take it seriously and read it seriously. For hello hello books to be recognized by such a long-running and, perhaps, venerated institution as PW is about as good as it gets.
“If hello hello books were a movie, this would be akin to an Oscar nomination for ‘Best Picture.’” he said.
Other finalists are A Likely Story, Sykesville, Md.; Classic Lines Bookstore, Pittsburgh.; Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan. The winner, chosen by past nominees and winners, will be announced in March and requires Simons to fill out a lengthy application.
Bodwell said he’s not aware of a Maine bookstore that had been nominated since the awards began in 1998. Jim Milliot, Publishers Weekly editorial director, said no Maine store has ever won the award.
Simons was as surprised as anyone else that 800-square-foot hello hello made the final cut.
Last year’s winner was Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colo., 20,000-square-foot store that’s been around for decades. This year’s nominations focus on smaller stores “that have an outsized impact on their community.
“I was pretty taken aback,” Simons said. “It never occurred to me that that could happen. I was completely bowled over.”
Aside from what it means to her store and staff, she’s also excited about the opportunity it gives her to talk about bookselling and the role it plays in Rockland and Maine in general.
“One of my first thoughts is that this is really good for Maine,” she said. “It’s a platform to talk about doing business here year-round. We tend to be left out.”
She said that a couple years ago she also made the decision to make the jobs of her two full-timers and one part-time staff person secure by not reducing hours in the winter.
“It’s hard to be a career bookseller, and for everything I ask of them, I want them to be rewarded for how hard they work,” she said.
She also credits the community for finding the store in February and March.
Milliot, Publishers Weekly editorial director, said nominations were made from various parts of the industry, including booksellers and publishers.
“In most years, the nominations are for stores that have national reputations, like Politics & Prose, Books & Books and Northshire,” he said. The three stores, in Washington, D.C., Florida and Manchester, Vt., are all longtime institutions in their communities, as well as Bookstore of the Year winners.
“We are happy many of the nominations this year focused on some of the smaller and mid-sized stores that have been key in the revival of indie booksellers,” Milliot said.
The store’s impact on Rockland, a midcoast city of 7,000, is felt, said Gordon Page, executive director of Rockland Main Street.
“Hello hello books is part of the ongoing revitalization of downtown Rockland and important to the effort to draw new and interesting residents to the city,” he said.
The city also has seasonal bookstore Dooryard Books, which features antique, classic and collectible books.
“Small, independent bookstores are an important link between vibrant communities and residents who recognize the benefits of being able to find what they're looking for with a personal touch,” he said. “We often hear about the demise of indy book shops, but Lacy has done a great job keeping her business relevant.”
Simons said that the impact of a bookstore can’t be discounted — she’s been told by some people they moved the area because they had a list of things they were looking for and a bookstore was one of them.
“They said that their list had ‘Not just a bookstore, but a bookstore like yours,’” she said.
It also fits with the overall community.
“Rockland is special in a lot of ways,” she said. She said the hard work the city has done to revitalize its downtown helps the retail atmosphere.
Simons knows the current narrative is that independent bookstores can’t succeed in an Amazon world. She admits it’s a struggle to stay on top of things.
But she said the challenge also helps her keep her head in the game and focus on what the store should be, something she said is vital to its success.
Since a store that’s squeezed into less than 900 square feet can’t have everything, the books on display are carefully chosen, with a focus on social justice issues, particularly the LGBTQ community.
“Customers get the sense pretty quickly what we’re about,” she said.
While the inventory is balanced, she wants a teenager who may be feeling left out to be able to walk in and feel they’ve found a welcoming place.
“Goodness knows, the internet is an amazing place [for finding information and support], but there’s nothing like having a place to go where you live and can feel welcome and a sense of community,” she said.
Simons said consideration of inventory, what the community wants and what people in the area want to read is a constant focus of the staff.
Bodwell, of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, said that focus is what makes hello hello appealing.
“[The store] does so much with so little,” he said. “I appreciate that since they can’t be/don’t want to be some massive all-service store with aisle upon aisle beneath fluorescent lights, they are a shop with a unique and specific personality and stellar curation.”
Bodwell said he loves the store. “I always find a surprise there, be it a new title I was unaware of, or a used first edition,” he said.
Simons said that other things that make a bookstore viable in the 2019 retail economy are simple marketing things, like a weekly newsletter that focuses on what books are available and what the staff recommends and making sure people know they can order almost any book and preorder books.
She also stresses to customers that it’s all right to order online, but check out the bookstore, too.
“Every micro decision you make helps us,” she said.
Simons, 43, grew up in Readfield to parents who both owned small businesses. She was also a book lover — Mr. Paperback in nearby Augusta was her store of choice growing up.
After getting a masters in fine arts and several jobs, including one at publisher Alice James Books in Farmington, she wanted to be her own boss.
The publishing house job taught her a lot about business. “It demystified a lot of the organizational structure,” she said. She also took some small businesses classes.
She worked at Second Read Books & Cafe in 2011, when it closed, and the opportunity to buy the bookstore arose.
“The project started in February 2011 and I opened in August [that year],” she said.
“It helped I’d been in the community,” she said. And it helped that the community, which made it clear it wanted a bookstore, supported her and makes the store viable.
“People find us and keep coming back,” she said. “Our measure of success is that we’re still here.”
She said the nomination isn’t for her, it’s for the store. “I couldn’t do this without the staff. I’m lucky to have people I trust and who know what they’re doing.”
“I know it’s a cliche, but it’s great just to be nominated,” she said. “We’ll always be able to say we were one of five in the country.”