Yes Books is very much a staple of Portland. How did you come to own it?
The original owner was Pat Murphy and the store was down on Danforth St. across the hall from the No Cafe, a fairly well known jazz cafe at the time. The bookstore next to No Cafe became Yes Books. Pat was there for about 5-10 years but moved up to Congress St. about 15 years ago. I’ve owned the store for about 10 years, but I’m still sort of getting settled in here.
How do you manage this space?
I’ve tried to maintain a lot of the same spirit, which is the old time-y, bohemian bookstore. However, Pat was very idiosyncratic. I’ve changed certain things such as alphabetizing the books. When Pat was here, he had the idea that if the books were not alphabetized [customers] would have to look harder and then they'd find more books they didn’t know they wanted. I’ve tried to streamline the browsing process, because there’s probably 50,000 books here.
What’s the ethos of Yes Books?
I’m trying to carry on a Portland tradition which started out with Francis O’Brien, a famous Portland bookseller who passed the torch onto Pat and then passed it on to me. Now, I’m here in the 21st century trying to keep the book trade alive.
With the ubiquity of digital media have you noticed a decline in demand for books in their physical form?
Oh yeah, for sure. Not only do we have online book selling, but we’ve got Google, Facebook, Snapchat. There are so many distractions. Who actually sits down and reads a whole book anymore? At the same time you’ve got hyper-marketing for new books. What’s happened is that the window for what gets published and what people buy is shrinking. There are all sorts of books that people don’t need to buy anymore because the Internet has replaced them. For example cookbooks and atlases.
Do you worry about young people not appreciating physical books?
Not really. There are so many things to be distracted by, but age-wise, we have young people coming in here all the time. There’s always a group of people that think books are cool, because they are vintage and old school. It’s a lifestyle, and young people are as much into it as the older people are.
But you do sell some works that can’t be found online, right?
It’s more that there are still enough people that appreciate browsing in an actual bookstore. They like to look at their books on their shelves. The whole magic of the book hasn’t gone away.
Does the tactile sensation of holding a book and turning its pages contribute to that magic?
People come in all the time and say they not only love physical books but they even love the smell of them. Books, as a medium, are hard to improve on. It’s been in evolution since the Gutenberg press first introduced the idea of a mass-produced book. It’s down to a science now.
What are you reading these days?
Mostly poetry, philosophy, travel, and history. I don’t read much fiction.
Tell me something you like and dislike about this job.
For me it’s a great job because I get to be a curator of knowledge. The search for great books is something that doesn’t ever end. But then anything that you do every day, all day, forever, can get tiring and boring at times. There’s a certain monotony, like with any job.
Are there any books or literary genres that you don’t carry or aren’t interested in carrying?
A lot of people come in looking for discount romance novels, or Goodwill-type books. We don’t have many of those.
Which three books would you take on a desert island?
I’d take the poetry of René Char, who was probably the most inexhaustible poet. I’d have to take the complete works of Shakespeare, the sonnets and all. After that I don’t know, maybe Ulysses or Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.
Pearls of Portland is a series that focuses on artists, activists, and cultural agents in Maine. Wanna nominate a Pearl? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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