Robert Klose
This cavelike – but well-organized – shop in a low-income neighborhood of Bangor, Maine, has had the same owner since 1980.

In Maine, a small secondhand bookstore soldiers on

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In one of Bangor, Maine’s poorest districts is a secondhand bookstore. A practical person might ponder what essential service Pro Libris Books provides to an impoverished neighborhood, which raises the question of what one considers essential. 

What a wonderful, wonderful thing to have a bookstore in one’s midst in an electronic age when so many bookstores – small independents and mega-outfits alike – have evaporated. Bookseller Eric Furry has plied his trade here since 1980 and, happily, still turns a profit. 

Why We Wrote This

How does any bookstore – much less a secondhand shop in a poor neighborhood – survive an electronic age and pandemic lockdowns? Perhaps because it provides an essential human need.

If I’m not mistaken, many patrons are here to be – and I choose this word carefully – comforted. The familiar titles and their affordability, the quirky touches (a bumper sticker announcing, “Maybe the hokey-pokey is what it’s all about”) turn me back to considering what is indeed essential. 

When I broached the topic with Mr. Furry, he recalled a woman who gave him a $20 bill for a $9.50 sale and told him to keep the change, remarking, “I just don’t want you to ever go away.” Pro Libris Books is evidence that man (or woman, or child) does not live by bread alone.

The Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam once wrote, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”

This thought came to mind as I drove through one of Bangor, Maine’s poorest neighborhoods en route to a small, offbeat, secondhand bookstore that distinguishes an otherwise careworn street and bears the lofty moniker Pro Libris Books. A practical person might ponder what essential service a bookstore provides to an impoverished neighborhood, which raises the question of what one considers essential. 

What a wonderful, wonderful thing to have a bookstore in one’s midst, especially in a place where other needs may incessantly intercede, and in an electronic age when so many bookstores – whether of the small, independent, mom and pop variety, or mega-outfits like Borders – have evaporated from our communities, seemingly overnight. Pro Libris Books is an unassuming but well-ordered cave of a shop occupying the ground floor of a peeling-paint clapboard building. Its facade is adorned with a hand-lettered sign, its entrance flanked by a funky plastic chair in the form of a hand. The owner, Eric Furry (is there a more appealing name for a bookseller?), has plied his trade since 1980 and, happily, still turns a profit.

Why We Wrote This

How does any bookstore – much less a secondhand shop in a poor neighborhood – survive an electronic age and pandemic lockdowns? Perhaps because it provides an essential human need.

Mr. Furry, a small septuagenarian with an outsize crop of salt-and-pepper hair, touts his business as “A Reader’s Paradise.” This seems to be enough to attract the rich variety of types I have observed there: high professionals, children, loquacious bookworms, students, college professors, and even, reflecting the neighborhood, a fair share of huddled masses yearning to read free. 

When I asked Mr. Furry if anyone notable had ever visited his shop, he quietly divulged appearances by authors Stephen King, William Kotzwinkle, Lynn Flewelling, and Allen Ginsberg, but he said this with reticence, as if unwilling to rank his clientele. 

As I wander the stacks, dividing my time between titles and observing the other visitors, I note the interplay between patron and proprietor. Not everyone is there to buy. If I’m not mistaken in my interpretation of body language, my impression is that many are there to be – and I choose this word carefully – comforted. The familiar titles, the affordability of the volumes, the quirky touches (a coffin-turned-bookcase from the set of a Stephen King movie; a bumper sticker announcing, “Maybe the hokey-pokey is what it’s all about”; Mr. Furry’s roaming cat) return me to the consideration of what we need, of what is indeed essential. When I am visiting Pro Libris Books, I find myself siding with celebrated author John Updike, who once said, “Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.”

I think Mr. Furry would agree, as would his customers. When I broached the topic of necessity with him, he recalled a woman who gave him a $20 bill for a $9.50 sale and told him to keep the change, remarking, “I just don’t want you to ever go away.” And then there was the man who sent him $80 out of the blue because he was worried about how Mr. Furry was faring during the pandemic-induced lockdown. I asked about his survival secret. The answer: “Low overhead. And a loyal clientele.”

The neighborhood might profit from, say, a supermarket, but the presence of Pro Libris Books and the community it serves is evidence that man (or woman, or child) does not live by bread alone, and that it is important to go on caring, even – and perhaps especially – in parlous and uncertain times.

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