I’m so sorry I have been absent for the last couple of weeks! Last week I was traveling with my family, and I’ve also just moved into a new place, so it’s been a bit of a hectic August. The trip was wonderful, though. Readers who saw my review of The Witches will know that I was lucky enough to visit New England, a part of the country I’ve never really seen before. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, and I’ll have at least a couple more posts about it in the future, but the bulk of the trip was spent in the southern region of Maine (and a pretty good portion of that was spent by the beach–as you can imagine, I got quite a bit of reading done, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts on those books with you).
One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to check out local bookstores, and luckily for me, there were two great options close by. One of them was a bookstore/coffee shop/bar combo I had remembered reading about in an article on Book Riot. I had remembered that the article included a place in Maine, but I figured it would probably be too far away to realistically justify the trip. Turns out, ELEMENTS: Books Coffee Beer was about a fifteen minute drive from where we were staying, making the trip a necessity.
The name of this place alone was the first thing that attracted me–what more could you want? When I visited it was earlier in the day, with the vibe leaning more coffee shop than bar, and I immediately felt comfortable. ELEMENTS is exactly the kind of place I loved to frequent in college (it reminded me a bit of Columbus’s own Kafe Kerouac, where I spent a lot of time studying as an Ohio State student). It had an array of tables, a cozy sofa in the back, and most importantly, book shelves all around the walls. The books were organized by genre, with square-shaped chalkboard signs designating the different categories in tall capital letters that resembled an element on the Periodic Table (i.e., you might see “Fi” for Fiction, “Hu” for Humor, etc.). The bright colors, exposed brick, and plethora of windows made the inside warm and inviting, the kind of place where you could spend hours reading and writing as you refill a coffee mug; many of the patrons seemed to be doing just that. Being surrounded by books only made the place feel even more studious, and I wished I had brought my writing to work on.
The selection of books was also surprisingly expansive–maybe not as wide as a traditional bookstore, but certainly enough for the place to earn its hybrid bookstore/coffee shop/bar title. It seemed to stock mostly used books, but everything was in good shape and sold at a pretty good bargain. My best find came from the sales cart in the back. The books there were a little more worn, but the titles themselves were often surprising. I scored a copy of The Lover by Marguerite Duras for a quarter! While I perused the book selection, I didn’t sample as much of the food and drink as I should have. In a bizarre, perhaps vacation-induced divergence from the norm, I was not in the mood for coffee when I visited, but the mug of chamomile tea I sipped while looking through the stacks was perfect. The staff was also kind and conversational. The woman who rang me up for my books told me that if I was interested in bookstores, I definitely had the check out the ones in nearby Portland–a piece of advice I’m glad I heeded.
I had just a blip of time to spend in Portland, but a quick Google search told me that if I only had time for one bookstore, the independent bookstore Longfellow Books was probably it. It’s in the hub of downtown Portland, making it an easy walk from a lot of the tourist attractions along the harbor. Longfellow Books was physically a bit smaller than I was expecting, but the size didn’t keep them from having a great selection, and they used their space well; the amount of books was dense but well organized, and it was easy to wend through the shelves and tables. The table displays and staff picks were interesting and well put-together, and the children’s section was impressively large, taking up what seemed to be about a third of the store. My quick Google search also told me that I had just missed a reading by Terry Tempest Williams (why did I have to be in Ohio the week before?), but in the midst of my disappointment, I remembered that a recent author visit probably meant that there were leftover signed books to be found. The friendly staff was able to locate the titles I was looking for right away, and sure enough, I went home with a signed copy of Finding Beauty in a Broken World. As excited as I was about this, it was probably not the most memorable element of the bookstore experience at Longfellow. That award went to the resident bookstore cat, who was adorable, cuddly, and up for adoption.
Whenever I travel, I always like to daydream about living in the place I’m visiting. What would it be like to be in this landscape all the time? Where would I go to get a cup of coffee? That’s why I like visiting local bookstores so much–the experience is a big part of what would make a place feel like home to me. After sampling a tiny slice of the bookstore culture in Maine, I think it’s pretty safe to say I can keep daydreaming about living there.