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Owner of Blizzard-Damaged Portland Bookstore Vows To Reopen
02/11/2013   Reported By: Samantha Fields

Compared to other parts of New England, Maine escaped the weekend blizzard relatively unscathed. A much-loved independent bookstore in Portland, though, sustained some heavy damage when strong winds blew in a window, froze the pipes and set off the sprinkler system. As Samantha Fields reports, the owners of Longfellow Books are overwhelmed by how much support they're receiving from the community, and working hard to re-open.

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Owner of Blizzard-Damaged Portland Bookstore Vows
Originally Aired: 2/11/2013 5:30 PM

Longfellow 6

Fans and humidifiers dry out Longfellow Books in Portland.

Chris Bowe is calling it the reverse "Fahrenheit 451."

"When I came in, just imagine, there's 30 or 40 firefighters with giant lights and axes, just carrying huge stacks of books, just going oh, oh, oh! And calling out to eachother in the darkness of the store," he says.  "And they're running around, carrying the books to safety, piling them, passing them to each other."

It was a powerful visual for Bowe, one of the owners of Longfellow, the anti-thesis of that Ray Bradbury classic where firefighters burn books. In this case, they were doing everything they could to save them.

Lt. John Brooks says it was the first thing on the firefighters' minds when they arrived to find water pouring from the ceiling.

"It was like raining inside the building," Brooks says. "There wasn't one spot that was dripping - it was all over that area. The guys started pitching in, they started throwing some tarps over the books, moving some books out of the way, and trying to save as many as we could."

Chris Bowe credits them with saving much of the store. The children's room, and most of the store's front room, with its new releases, cards and magazines, made it through the flood largely unscathed.

Longfellow 3The fiction room (left, with Bowe) is a different story. It's full of industrial, green fans and humidifiers, working overtime to dry out the carpet and the walls and the air. In here, Julia Gershen - whose father, Stuart, is one of the store's owners - is moving armfuls of books from a shelf - books that are still damp, their pages wavy. "Most of them are either water damaged or moldy," she says.

When she says most of them, she means thousands. Chris Bowe estimates that the store has lost 30 to 40 percent of its inventory.

"Look: 'A People's History!' And see sometimes at night, or early in the morning when I'm shelving books, I'll talk to them. I'll be like, 'Hey Bill, you've been here for three weeks man, you gotta sell, you gotta go home.' And now there's so many stories that will never have a home, and that makes me sad. That reminds me of, like, Corduroy, which I read when I was a kid. They just want to go home."

Now, instead, many of the 30,000 damaged books in the store will never be sold. And all of them will have to be picked up, carried, scanned, catalogued, and if they're in good shape, re-shelved. It's no easy feat.

But Chris says he's been overwhelmed by the response from the community. One local business owner dropped off a check that she wouldn't let him refuse. Another brought over chicken soup. And people have been stopping Bowe in the laundromat, and on every block of his walk to work, to offer help and support.

"I didn't realize how many people knew me. But more than that, I didn't realize how deep people's affinity and affection for the store is," he says.

At this point, Bowe says, it looks like insurance will cover inventory and lost wages. But he may take people up on their offers of help by having an "alphabetizing party" soon, to get the shelves back in order.

"So if you know your alphabet, contact us. We'll have it up on the website. But really, when we open, just come buy books, that's all. That's what I need, that's what I want, that's the only thing that makes sense," he says.

Right now, the goal is to re-open on Thursday, because they had a big event scheduled for that night. And that, Bowe says, is as good a reason as any:

"I have to have a goal somewhere," he says. "You know, it's like you're going to climb a mountain - well I'm gonna get to that peak. You have to choose something and work towards it. Otherwise, you look around here, I could spend the rest of my life alphabetizing. I have to pick something and say that's my goal. And that seems like a good place to go.

Photos by Samantha Fields.



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