Longfellow Books: Takin’ it to the streets with independent lit

2015_01_28_AffiliateAritsts_Russo_Flyer_V5Portland is proud of its Art Walk history and its newer foodie trends. The city touts itself as one of the best places in the country to visit when you want great live music, an up-and-coming place to get down and dance, and a true melting pot of cultures and customs. Portland is also a well-read and a well-written community with some of the world’s best poets, playwrights, novelists and memoirists, without even needing to play our trump card in Stephen King.

The mecca for all things literary is Longfellow Books, known since its beginning as “fiercely independent,” a phrase which both captures its owners’ intent and takes a jab at heartless bookstore chains that charge for wireless and offer shelves upon shelves of empty tomes. Longfellow is even dog friendly, so if Fido has a hankering for a cat calendar or the latest issue of Bon Appétit, bring him along on your visit. (My dog, Wyatt, loves to sink his teeth into King’s Bag of Bones.)

I caught up recently with a few of the bookshop’s key couriers: Bill Lundgren and Chris Bowe, who gave me the scoop on the store’s storied past, and Ari Gersen, one of the owners. Lundgren was a bookseller for six years before moving to make his own pastures greener with residential gardening. Bowe is a tireless advocate for readers who follow their dreams and become writers. Gersen has his hands full with big plans for Longfellow’s near future. Here are their short stories:

Bill Lundgren still keeps his quill dipped by writing reviews for Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner’s blog (www.billanddavescocktailhour.com). He has long been championing great writers, old and new, and was always a reliable source when he worked at Longfellow Books for what to look for when you want to read something but don’t know what.

He points to Roorbach’s Remedy for Love (a 2014 Kirkus Prize finalist) and Gessner’s All the Wild That Remains, which is about Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, “two literary icons often categorized as western writers,” Lundgren said. “Stegner and Abbey really are among the most important writers of our generation and are pigeon-holed by New York elitists. Their message was that the American West is ecologically fragile. Too many people are moving there and there’s not enough water.”

One of the gems of Gessner’s book is about Ken Kesey, the Merriest of Pranksters who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on his night watchman work at a mental hospital, experimenting with LSD for the U.S. government’s interest in it as a truth serum. Kesey found truth, all right, but it may not have been what Uncle Sam intended.

“Kesey was in Stegner’s (Stanford Creative) Writing Program,” Lundgren said. “Kesey said he liked his acid and Wally liked his Jack Daniels. Gessner says that Kesey based Nurse Ratched on Stegner.”

Lundgren is uncertain of the vignette’s veracity but relishes it anyway. Another of his Longfellow loves was when Zadie Smith read at SPACE at an event sponsored by the bookstore. And once, “Terry Tempest Williams came into the store on a summer day,” he recalled. “I didn’t know it was her. I asked her if she wanted to join the customer appreciation club. When I saw her name, I was surprised. She was shy but so incredibly genuine. I asked her to do a reading.”

Bowe has long been Longfellow’s fiercest herald.

“From day one, 15 years ago, Longfellow wanted to be a community bookstore – to serve not only the readers but the writers,” he said. “Several of them have grown up with us. I think of Sarah Braunstein. She was coming to our events for a while, and then she published a book and became a top fiction writer (National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 for 2010 with The Sweet Relief of Missing Children) and has stories published in The New Yorker. I think of authors like Paul Doiron or Monica Wood, whose careers have gone from great little books to national best sellers. They’ve read at our store, and they still come in when they have a new book, make sure we get advanced copies of their work.”

Longfellow Books doesn’t stop at its own door (which they remind you to close to keep in the cat). “The other critical thing we’ve done is we are all over the town,” Bowe said. “Last Friday night, we hosted a reading at SPACE for Arthur Bradford. Ten years ago we had him come up with Zadie Smith, when no one had heard of her. That comes from us being in love with books. Tuesday night, we had a launch party outside of Congress Square Park for Go Set a Watchman (by Harper Lee) with Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance and the Portland Public Library. The whole town is part of who we are. We take it to the streets, and we think that matters.”

As to the future of the bookshop, Ari Gersen, an owner, spoke about the challenges his family has faced since the death of their father, Stuart, Longfellow’s longtime owner who bought a Bookland out of bankruptcy and gave birth to the store on Monument Square.

“It’s been a hard time, a challenging transition for us,” he said of himself, Jacob, his older brother, and Julia, his younger sister. “We all grew up in bookstores. They were sort of our playgrounds. We’d go look through the stacks and run around in the backrooms. The Auburn Bookland was where we cut our teeth.”

Gersen’s early literary loves were A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L'Engle) and The Pillars of the Earth (by Ken Follett) – “two books I read over and over again.” He said he learned to love great lit from his father, but it was not a heavy-handed lesson. “I learned from osmosis.”

Gersen is excited about the city and its embracing of shared spaces and creative endeavors. He cited the pop-up park behind the old Portland Press Herald building and its typewriter murals and poetic gatherings.

“It’s such a creative idea, and they have permission until the end of October to be closed off to traffic,” he said. “The whole space is all about the written word and celebrates the building’s history. It’s a natural fit.”

Of his own shop’s upcoming events, he said, “I want us to be more proactive about how we can shine a light on the great work people are doing in town and to try to bring different parts of the community together for something they might not have otherwise experienced. We get great turnouts at author readings, but it’s a limited audience, in some ways.”

On Thursday, July 30, Longfellow Books is looking to prove the hypothesis when they bring together Pulitzer Prize winner and proud Portland resident Richard Russo and Peter Nichols, an experienced writer on his first foray into fiction with The Rocks, a maritime mystery.

“We want to get a mix of people to come in and see Rick and Peter talking about his (Nichols) new book,” Gersen said and then steered the talk to the near future with a rhetorical. “How can we broaden our impact? Longfellow Books has an amazing role in this community – one that I had no hand in building – but I consider myself a steward, trying to find ways to strengthen Longfellow’s position and leverage the impact it can have on the community. We’re just going to try a bunch of stuff. Some will work some, and maybe some won’t but nothing will be lost in the effort.”

Peter Nichols in conversation with Richard Russo | 7 pm, Thursday, July 30 | At Federal Street Folly Park (behind the Press Hotel) | www.longfellowbooks.com