In a small midcoast city of around 7,000, there will soon be four bookstores operating within a five-minute walk of each other.
Belfast’s fourth bookstore, Grump & Sunshine Bookshop, is set to open May 22 on High Street. That’s one more than nearby Rockland, and double the number of bookstores in Farmington, both of which have larger populations than Belfast.
Mayor Eric Sanders said having bookstores that match niche interests for different community members is what allows each store to succeed.
“The more unique, the more old fashioned, the more diverse in their offerings, the better,” Sanders said.
For instance, Craig Olson Books specializes in rare and used books while Left Bank Books on Church Street specializes in events.
Olson, whose bookshop opened on Main Street last September, said the niche-specific bookshops don’t compete with each other the way some other businesses might.
belfast’s book scene
Instead, they work in tandem. He said there isn’t a day that goes by where he isn’t sending someone to Bellabooks on Pendleton Street or to Left Bank Books if he doesn’t have what they’re looking for. He’s also seen plenty of customers sent to him from the other bookstores as well, he said.
“We’re always working back and forth,” Olson said.
Julia Clapp and Tiffany Howard, long-time employees who bought Left Bank Books last January, agreed that each shop serves a unique purpose downtown. In addition to events, their bookshop has been the go-to for new books for the midcoast city for a decade.
Having so many bookstores in downtown Belfast is a “gift to the community,” Sanders said, and shows Belfast is a place where people want to learn and grow. He said the number of bookstores fit into a bigger theme of highlighting the arts throughout the city.
“Bookstores add a lot of cultural fabric to the downtown,” he said.
Maine overall has a high number of bookstores that are “tremendously long-lived,” according to Beth Ineson, executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. She said their ability to last so long often comes down to the support their community shows them.
Ineson says it’s a two way street for bookstores to succeed in small towns: the community has to want them, and the bookstore has to give something back, whether that’s through events, connecting with local institutions or specializing in books that their community is interested in.
Belfast embraces its bookshops, and so do tourists, according to the store owners.
“We’re lucky to live in a community where people support small business,” Clapp said.
belfast’s book scene
Some customers who visit Maine annually have even started a kind of ritual where they’ll pop into the bookstore every year on their way through town, Clapp said.
Since 2020, 37 bookstores have joined the booksellers association, Ineson said. Not all new bookstores join, but she said the growth she’s seen is “extraordinary” and that number rivals the total new membership her organization had seen over the last 20 years.
“Bookstores tend to be a cornerstone of Main Street,” Ineson said. “Most communities really want bookstores to be there because they’re gathering places, they always make Main Street look good.”
That’s what folks in Belfast say they’re seeing as well.
“We find people coming here because they like the mix of bookstores, and galleries, and restaurants, and everything that Belfast has to offer,” Olson said.
Olson said he’s excited about the newest addition to Belfast’s bookstore community opening next week, which will specialize in romance novels.
“I love the strength in numbers, it really brings people into a community,” Olson said.