I do quite a bit of traveling for Gwarlingo these days and one of the best things about being on the road is discovering out-of-the way, independent bookshops. For me, walking into a deftly run, well-curated bookstore is almost as good as losing myself in a bang-up novel: there’s a sense of forgetting, as well as discovery.
That is exactly how I felt when I walked into Lacy Simons’ shop Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine, in late August.
I was fresh from a week on a boat and was literally finding my “land legs” when I stopped into the Rock City Cafe for a cup of coffee. Hello Hello Books is tucked away at the back of the cafe, but don’t let its location or size fool you. As one Hello Hello customer recently said, the store “is small, but powerful.”
I knew I was in the right place when I saw The McSweeney’s Book of Lists (funniest book ever), Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems, and The Cloud Collector’s Handbook (an obscure, personal favorite) near the register and overheard the store’s owner, Lacy Simons, giving passionate, personal advice to a customer about a particular author.
Almost two hours later, I emerged from the shop with my arms full and my hunger for a little oceanside culture entirely satisfied.
Simons grew up in Maine, worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Sitka, Alaska (which Lacy says, also has “an awesome bookstore), and then went on to earn her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminar in 2003. For three years, she worked as the Managing Editor of Alice James Books, a forty-year-old independent poetry press based in Maine and one of my own favorite publishers.
Lacy is hardly new to the book scene in Rockland. “I worked for the previous business from 2003-2006 as the assistant bookshop manager (one of just two employees) and then returned in 2009 as the manager,” Lacy told me via email. “In early 2011, Susanne Ward (Rock City’s owner) decided she just couldn’t do the bookstore business anymore, and offered to sell it to me. I got my act together super quickly, and just a few months later, June of 2011, it became officially mine; in August of that same year, I officially opened for business!”
At Hello Hello Books the shelves are teeming with unusual children’s books, quality magazines like The Paris Review, Uppercase, Lucky Peach, and The Believer, handmade cards, one-of-a-kind artist books, and funky finds like decorative Japanese tape and journals handmade from record album covers, as well as plenty of well-chosen books from every category under the sun. Simons doesn’t waste a single inch of space in her carefully curated store. There is a mixture of new, used, and sale books as well, which only adds to the fun.
“About six months ago, a new customer said to me as she checked out: ‘I like this shop. It’s small, but powerful.’ I loved that, and asked her if I could adopt the term ‘small but powerful’ as our unofficial motto; luckily, she said yes. That encapsulates a whole lot of what’s unique about the shop: relatively tiny footprint, but densely packed with as much good stuff as possible, and very responsive to customer enthusiasms. We try to make the experience as personal as possible–both in the sense that we’re pretty friendly human beings, and in the carefully hand-picked books and merchandise we carry. No algorithms determine our stock or the way we interact with you. Promise.”
My own finds at Hello Hello Books included Tom Phillips A Humument (which I featured in my article about Mary Ruefle and erasure poetry several months ago) and the splendid coffee table book When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy (which I’ve never seen before and bought for a bargain price).
The Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center are two popular tourist stops in Rockland. But what about out-of-town guests in the mood for something less traditional? I asked Lacy to share some of her own favorite haunts in Rockland, particularly out-of-the-way places visitors might miss:
“The downside of being a small business owner is that often you don’t get to do a whole lot except, you know, run the business. But when I get breaks from the retail jail, or when people are visiting and give me the excuse to tourist around a bit, I insist on visits to Home Kitchen Cafe (best breakfast in Maine, and they serve Rock City Coffee!); In Good Company (super-relaxed and non-snooty wine bar with small delicious plates of food and some giant incredible plants); Uproot Pie Co., a seasonal mobile wood-fired pizza place; super-contemporary art gallery Asymmetrick Arts…and a little drive out of town is the incredible Fawcett’s Antique Toy & Art Museum, which defies any description save “ohmygodlookatallthisstuff.”
While online mega-sites may have the cheapest prices on some books, it’s knowledge, customer service, and creative curation that make independent stores thrive. Since many of you won’t be able to make it to Rockland any time soon, I’m bringing Lacy’s expertise to you. I’ve asked her to share some of her own personal favorites, as well as some items that are hot sellers at Hello Hello Books right now.
This article is the first installment of a new series on Gwarlingo, one that will periodically profile independent bookshops and their owners. The series is a way to share the stories behind these business, but is also a chance to discover new books worth reading, books that otherwise might not be on your radar.
Items featured in this series will link to the IndieBound website, an online resource begun by the independent bookseller members of the American Booksellers Association. When you click on one of the books recommended by Lacy below, you’ll be taken to IndieBound, where you can purchase books from your favorite local or independent store and have your items shipped or held for pick-up. As with purchases made through the Gwarlingo Amazon Store, a small percentage of sales made on IndieBound will benefit Gwarlingo.
But if you’re in striking distance to Rockland, I hope you’ll stop by Hello Hello in person and support Lacy’s exceptional bookstore.
Why support independent bookstores? Here are some of the reasons listed on the IndieBound website…
- Spend $100 at a local store and $68 of that stays in your community. Spend the same $100 at a national chain, and your community only sees $43.
- Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbors.
- More of your taxes are reinvested in your community–where they belong.
- Buying local means less packaging, less transportation, and a smaller carbon footprint.
- Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance, and more money to beautify your community.
- Local retailers are your friends and neighbors—support them and they’ll support you.
- Local businesses donate to charities at more than twice the rate of national chains.
- More independents means more choice, more diversity, and a truly unique community.
I know that I’ll be stopping be Hello Hello each time I pass through Rockland, and I’m looking forward to checking out some of the books on Lacy’s list.
Have you read any of the books on Lacy’s list below? If you’re already a Hello Hello customer, what’s your favorite thing about Lacy’s store? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments section below or on the Gwarlingo Facebook page.
A Selection of Lacy Simons’ Favorite Books
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Note: All book descriptions are from the publisher.
Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games on a frozen lake; of “nightcreeping” through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason’s search to replace his dead grandfather’s irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher’s recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons.
Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s subtlest and most effective achievement to date.
Skid by Dean Young
Dean Young is one of the premier surrealist poets writing today. In Skid, his fifth book of poems, social outrage vies with comic excess. He embraces the autobiographical urge with fury and musically lush exclamations. Whether through the dark facts of mortality or the celebratory surprises of the imagination, these poems proclaim vitality and alertness, wasting nothing. From Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner’s “Meep! Meep!” to remembrances of lost loves and laments about the future, Young’s poems reveal his faith in the genius of calamity and the redemptive power of fun.
The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn
For more than twenty years, acclaimed author Edward St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of Patrick Melrose, painting an extraordinary portrait of the beleaguered and self-loathing world of privilege. This single volume collects the first four novels—Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, a Man Booker finalist—to coincide with the publication of At Last, the final installment of this unique novel cycle.
By turns harrowing and hilarious, these beautifully written novels dissect the English upper class as we follow Patrick Melrose’s story from child abuse to heroin addiction and recovery. Never Mind, the first novel, unfolds over a day and an evening at the family’s chateaux in the south of France, where the sadistic and terrifying figure of David Melrose dominates the lives of his five-year-old son, Patrick, and his rich and unhappy American mother, Eleanor. From abuse to addiction, the second novel, Bad News opens as the twenty-two-year-old Patrick sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York, where he will spend a drug-crazed twenty-four hours. And back in England, the third novel, Some Hope, offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery. The fourth novel, the Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk, returns to the family chateau, where Patrick, now married and a father himself, struggles with child rearing, adultery, his mother’s desire for assisted suicide, and the loss of the family home to a New Age foundation.
Edward St. Aubyn offers a window into a world of utter decadence, amorality, greed, snobbery, and cruelty—welcome to the declining British aristocracy.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Often described as Steinbeck’s most ambitious novel, East of Eden brings to life the intricate details of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and their interwoven stories. The novel was originally addressed to Steinbeck’s young sons, Thom and John (then 6½ and 4½ respectively). Steinbeck wanted to describe the Salinas Valley for them in detail: the sights, sounds, smells, and colors.
The Hamilton family in the novel is said to be based on the real-life family of Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather. A young John Steinbeck also appears briefly in the novel as a minor character.
According to his third and last wife, Elaine, he considered it his magnum opus – his greatest novel.Steinbeck stated about East of Eden: “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” He further claimed: “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”
Medicine by Amy Gerstler
Amy Gerstler has won acclaim for complex yet accessible poetry that is by turns extravagant, subversive, surreal, and playful. In her new collection, Medicine, she deploys a variety of dramatic voices, spoken by such disparate characters as Cinderella’s wicked sisters, the wife of a nineteenth-century naturalist, a homicide detective, and a woman who is happily married to a bear. Their elusive collectivity suggests, but never quite defines, the floating authorial presence that haunts them. Gerstler’s abiding interests–in love and mourning, in science and pseudo-science, in the idea of an afterlife–are strongly evident in these new poems, which are full of strong emotion, language play, surprising twists, and a wicked sense of black humor.
The Emperor’s Last Island by Julia Blackburn
After his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the island of St. Helena–”further away from anywhere than anywhere else in the world,” writes Julia Blackburn, who describes the final years of Napoleon’s life on this remote rock in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he died in 1821. A handful of quarreling sycophants accompanied him during his exile, all vying for favors and tolerating the former general’s constant cheating at card games. Meanwhile, a contingent of British soldiers kept him under close observation. They feared that he would escape, but an attempt was never made. Interestingly, Blackburn disputes the theory that Napoleon was assassinated by arsenic poisoning. She adds details of her own trip to the island, which continues to serve as a bleak outpost of the British Empire. It was apparently once a place of great natural splendor, but early visitors cut down its trees, which loosened the soil for the eroding winds; the island never really recovered. A few maps and photos would have helped, but this unique book deserves attention from all Napoleon fans.
The Greatest of Marlys by Lynda Barry
Lynda Barry had a bona fide hit with Cruddy, and her fans are now calling for her older comic strips, all out of print. This book answers the call as it delivers the life and times of Marlys Mullen, the most beloved character in Barry’s nationally syndicated comic strip, ‘Ernie Pook’s Comeek.’ Way back in the mid-1980s, Barry introduced the character of Marlys Mullen, her crazy groovy teenage sister Maybonne, her sensitive and strange little brother Freddie, a mother like no other, and an array of cousins and friends from the ‘hood. This oversized book presents the long strange journey through puberty and life that Marlys and company have experienced. Marlys’s universe and galaxy are funny, rude, disturbing, tearful . . . in short, very, very Lynda Barry.
What’s Hot at Hello Hello Books in Rockland
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle
In 1963, ten years after he may have given Hank the morphine shot that killed him, Doc has lost his license. Living in the red-light district of San Antonio, he performs abortions and patches up the odd knife wound to feed his addiction. But when Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant, appears in the neighborhood in search of Doc’s services, miraculous things begin to happen. Everyone she meets is transformed for the better, except, maybe, for Hank’s angry ghost—who isn’t at all pleased to see Doc doing well.
“Raw, honest and unafraid, this novel veers in and out of the lives of its many memorable characters with flawless pitch,” says writer Tom Franklin. “Steve Earle has given us dozens of remarkable songs, he has given us a dazzling collection of short stories, and now here’s his first novel, a doozy from a great American storyteller.”
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History by Lewis Buzbee
In The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, a Book Sense selection, Lewis Buzbee celebrates the unique experience of the bookstore—the smell and touch of books, the joy of getting lost in the deep canyons of shelves, and the silent community of readers. He shares his passion for books, which began with ordering through the Weekly Reader in grade school. Woven throughout is a fascinating historical account of the bookseller trade—from the great Alexandria library to Sylvia Beach’s famous Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. Rich with anecdotes, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is the perfect choice for those who relish the enduring pleasures of spending an afternoon finding just the right book.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from “Dear Sugar” by Cheryl Strayed
Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.
Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
Do lobsters feel pain? Did Franz Kafka have a funny bone? What is John Updike’s deal, anyway? And what happens when adult video starlets meet their fans in person? David Foster Wallace answers these questions and more in essays that are also enthralling narrative adventures. Whether covering the three-ring circus of a vicious presidential race, plunging into the wars between dictionary writers, or confronting the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace projects a quality of thought that is uniquely his and a voice as powerful and distinct as any in American letters.
Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things by Rosamond Purcell
A derelict antiques and scrap metal business in Owls Head, Maine, is the setting of this multi-layered word-portrait of its owner, William Buckminster, proprietor of an extraordinary collection of discarded and decaying items, no-longer-functioning remnants of previous lives. Buckminster’s world, which includes both his vaunted talents in the local pool halls and his sure knowledge of the seemingly endless number of fascinating objects from his vast supply, are inspiration for Purcell’s carefully crafted meditation on collecting and entropy, and the signals both send to those of us willing to pay attention. The book also includes 34 duotone footnote photographs.
The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz
The Art of Fermentation is the most comprehensive guide to do-it-yourself home fermentation ever published. Sandor Katz presents the concepts and processes behind fermentation in ways that are simple enough to guide a reader through their first experience making sauerkraut or yogurt, and in-depth enough to provide greater understanding and insight for experienced practitioners.
While Katz expertly contextualizes fermentation in terms of biological and cultural evolution, health and nutrition, and even economics, this is primarily a compendium of practical information-how the processes work; parameters for safety; techniques for effective preservation; troubleshooting; and more.
With illustrations and extended resources, this book provides essential wisdom for cooks, homesteaders, farmers, gleaners, foragers, and food lovers of any kind who want to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for arguably the oldest form of food preservation, and part of the roots of culture itself. Readers will find detailed information on fermenting vegetables; sugars into alcohol (meads, wines, and ciders); sour tonic beverages; milk; grains and starchy tubers; beers (and other grain-based alcoholic beverages); beans; seeds; nuts; fish; meat; and eggs, as well as growing mold cultures, using fermentation in agriculture, art, and energy production, and considerations for commercial enterprises. Sandor Katz has introduced what will undoubtedly remain a classic in food literature, and is the first-and only-of its kind.
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson
With the new breakthroughs in neuroscience, combined with the insights from thousands of years of contemplative practice, you, too, can shape your own brain for greater happiness, love, and wisdom.
Buddha’s Brain joins the forces of modern science with ancient teachings to show readers how to have greater emotional balance in turbulent times, as well as healthier relationships, more effective actions, and a deeper religious or spiritual practice.
Well-referenced and grounded in science, the book is full of practical tools and skills readers can use in daily life to tap the unused potential of the brain and rewire it over time for greater peace and well-being.
If you can change your brain, you can change your life.
The Printmaker’s Daughter: A Novel by Katherine Govier
Recounting the story of her life, Oei plunges us into the colorful world of nineteenth-century Edo, in which courtesans rub shoulders with poets, warriors consort with actors, and the arts flourish in an unprecedented moment of creative upheaval. Oei and Hokusai live among writers, novelists, tattoo artists, and prostitutes, evading the spies of the repressive shogunate as they work on Hokusai’s countless paintings and prints. Wielding her brush, rejecting domesticity in favor of dedication to the arts, Oei defies all expectations of womanhood—all but one. A dutiful daughter to the last, she will obey the will of her eccentric father, the man who created her and who, ultimately, will rob her of her place in history.
Vivid, daring, and unforgettable, The Printmaker’s Daughter shines fresh light on art, loyalty, and the tender and indelible bond between a father and daughter.
Hello Hello Books, Rockland, Maine
For more information on Hello Hello Books, please visit the store’s website. You’ll find lots of cool stuff there, including links to the Hello Hello Books Twitter feed, Facebook page, and much more. If you’re in the Rockland vicinity, be sure to stop by and say “hello” to Lacy in person. You can tell her Michelle from Gwarlingo sent you.
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You can make purchases from your favorite independent bookstore through IndieBound. A percentage of your purchases made through this link also benefit Gwarlingo. Not interested in shopping through IndieBound? The Gwarlingo Amazon Store also has an assortment of book titles on my personal recommendation list, including poetry, fiction, art and photography books, and more. A portion of all purchases from IndieBound and Amazon benefit Gwarlingo.