Bridgton Books — Still ‘crazy’ after 25 years

Pam and Justin Ward at the counter of Bridgton Books

By Perri Black

Twenty-five years ago, Pam and Justin Ward had a crazy idea — they wanted to open an independent bookstore. Many people called them “crazy” because, at that time, the big “super stores” like Barnes and Noble and Borders were forcing smaller, independent bookstores out of business all across the country. An accountant even told Justin, not to open a bookstore because, although the idea might be quaint, it would definitely “go under and lose everything.” But the Wards were not dissuaded. Justin had worked at an independent bookstore “learning the ropes” for about six months and now hoped to open one of his own.

After searching all over New England for a suitable location, and then losing a site in York, Maine, at the very last minute, they decided to drive down Route 302 to look for places in Fryeburg. As fate would have it, they stopped at Main Street Variety in Bridgton and the woman working there was very enthusiastic about Bridgton as a good location for a bookstore. The stars began to align and, within a short period of time, the Wards moved to the area, rented a building on Main Street across from Renys (where Main Street Mercantile now stands); ordered as many books as they could afford; bought some wood from Brill Lumber, and organized friends for a bookshelf building party. In April 1993, Bridgton Books was born, followed shortly by the birth of the Wards' first child in May.

The location of the store seemed right and, despite warnings about making such a big gamble, they were optimistic about their chances. At the time the accountant spoke against opening a bookstore, it had already been operating for a month so there was no turning back. Crazy or not, they were in it for the long haul.

Bridgton Books’ success is very much due to hard work and commitment to both the store and the community. For the first several years, Justin put in long hours at the store, working mainly by himself, while Pam was primarily in charge of their three children at their home in Lovell. Both Pam and Justin were teachers before opening the store and they became actively involved in their children's schools and extracurricular activities, as well as with community events in Bridgton and the Lake Region area. They continue to volunteer for many charitable activities, and the business offers discounts and supports local nonprofit organizations through sponsorships and donations. In the summer, Pam and Justin hold book fairs for some boys’ and girls’ camps in the area. The store also sells tickets to local theater productions, concerts, and events and, as Justin says, “serves as an ‘information post’ for the town, fielding inquiries on just about everything.”

Sergei the bookstore cat

The bookstore has developed a loyal base of customers from all over, which has been its mainstay over the years. Many customers from “away” bemoan the fact that bookstores in their hometowns were forced out of business by “big box” sellers, which then also closed down. They always comment that they are happy Bridgton Books is still in operation. And local support sustains the store year-round.

In 1997, the Wards bought the old Allen's Pharmacy building at 140 Main St., which reduced their overall costs, and they set about preparing to relocate the bookstore to this new location. Before moving day, Justin put the word out that he needed people to help move boxes of books from one store to the other. He couldn’t afford to pay anyone but he had Bridgton Books T-shirts printed up and gave them to everyone who helped. On the day of the move, about 100 people showed up and began lugging boxes of books from the old store to the new one. The entire store was moved in a single afternoon. It also remained unofficially open and even sold a few books during the move. Justin was amazed that so many volunteers turned up just to help out when he needed them. The Bridgton News even showed up to cover the event. At this point he realized that he, Pam, and the store had become a permanent, important part of the local community.

Like most independent bookstores, Bridgton Books outshines the big box stores by providing outstanding, personalized customer service. The owners hire only a few extra staff and all are avid readers, each with their own "specialty," so they can recommend books and authors far beyond the usual bestsellers. They also know how to locate a specific title among the more than 20,000 in stock and are willing to "go the extra mile" to help customers find what they are looking for. If a desired book is not on the shelves, they can special order it — usually at no extra cost — and it often arrives within a few business days. I was fortunate enough to be a member of Bridgton Books staff for 13 years and my successor, Sue Connelly, has been working there since the autumn of 2007. We both agree it is the best place to work in town.

The store also offers exposure for local authors, helping them promote their books through book signings, and works with local libraries, schools, and organizations to promote authors and provide books for a variety of events. One of Pam's favorite memories was Stephen King's book signing for Under the Dome in December 2009. The night was cold and Mr. King expressed concern about the more than 500 people waiting in line outside the Magic Lantern Theater, where the signing was held. The theater manager opened the doors to all the cinemas so people could be warm while they waited. The publicist also provided free popcorn and soft drinks for those waiting to have books signed. Pam remembers a real feeling of community because Stephen was in familiar territory and among friends, not just fans. He spoke to each person as they filed onto the stage to have their books signed and he listened happily to their stories. Many had known Stephen and his family years ago when they lived in the Bridgton area and others knew him as a summer resident of Lovell. Pam says the evening was very civilized and enjoyable, and a good time was had by all.

Bridgton Books has evolved over the years, expanding and adjusting its offerings to adapt to changing times and customer demands. Since the beginning, the bargain book section with reduced-price titles has always been a customer favorite, and it has now increased to fill much of the back of the shop. Under Pam's curatorship, the children's section, including bargain books, has grown significantly, especially the "young adult" genre which has recently become very popular. Perhaps the most noticeable recent change is the number of gift items on display. Pam has always hand-picked the greeting cards, but now that her kids are on their own, she is able to work more at the store and has boosted sales with the addition of carefully-chosen unique gifts, many produced locally. She has also created some customized products such as mugs, coasters, cards, and calendars directly related to Bridgton and the Lake Region and featuring some of her own photographs.

And what bookstore worth its salt is without a mascot? Bridgton Books has had a few, starting with Eunice, the glorious St. Bernard who was there at the beginning and attracted many customers during her watch. She was followed by Maddy, the black Lab, who was a store fixture for about six years. Now the title has passed on to Sergei, the cat, who Pam and Justin say is named after a hockey player but I prefer to think he's the namesake of Prokofiev or Rachmaninoff.

Of course, any print bookstore these days faces challenges with technology. While computers and network connections have streamlined researching, ordering, and promoting books, online sellers compete for business and social media vies for attention. About 10 years ago, e-books came on the scene and then the economy tanked, which caused some major concerns, but enough loyal customers continue buying paper books and want to shop local so Bridgton Books is able to carry on. Diversifying offerings has helped, too. Justin says he is more worried about “more and more people spending their free time playing games or [using] social media over their phones instead of reading.”

So, what about the store's future? Pam and Justin say they hope to keep on operating and serving the community as usual. After all these years, Justin says he is pleasantly surprised that Bridgton Books is still going strong, stating that, “We count our blessings every day.” And Bridgton is lucky their "crazy" idea worked out!

The following are some holiday gift book recommendations from Bridgton Books. Stop by the store and ask for more.

Justin’s picks: Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver; Dry, by Neal Schusterman; Kingdom of the Blind, by Louise Penny

Pam’s picks: Mission Defrostable, by Josh Funk (age 4+); Elbow Grease, by John Cena (age 4+); Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (9+), by Dusti Bowling

Sue’s picks: Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast, by Bill Richardson; Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman; A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry

Perri’s picks: Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata; The Afterlife of Kenzaburo Tsuruda, by Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo; A Girl’s Guide to Missiles, by Karen Piper

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