Independent Blue Hill Books is cultural hub

Eliza Hill of Brooksville is among the many customers whose book preferences and interests are known by Blue Hill Books’ longtime staffer and new owner Samantha Haskell. PHOTO BY JACQUELINE WEAVER

A regular customer stopped in recently at Blue Hill Books looking for Elizabeth Rosenthal’s newly-released “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back.”

The book buyer, Eliza Hill of Brooksville, knew the author, but not the title, and before she had even said the full name, store owner Samantha Haskell reached to her left and retrieved a copy.

Haskell bought the business from Mariah Hughs and Nick Sichterman in February, but has been a constant presence in the 1,700-square-foot bookstore for some time.

“I love books,” said Haskell, “but the biggest draw for me is the interaction with the customers and having the base for interesting conversations. It’s always a fun place to be.”

Hughs and Sichterman founded Blue Hill Books in 1986 in their then-home on Pleasant Street. They had moved to Blue Hill from Pleasantville, N.Y., where they also owned a book store.

They built the white clapboard, two-level bookstore six years later on land across the street.

“Bookstores are a reflection of the community they serve,” Sichterman said. “We have great readers here.”

Haskell graduated from George Stevens Academy and College of the Atlantic. She worked at Blue Hill Books every summer through college and found it to be a very light lift. She began working full time there in 2010.

“I love coming to work every day,” she said. “That’s not something everyone can say. And I love the community. I was born and brought up here.”

Haskell said the plan is to keep doing what has been working so well for 30 years, with a few additions in mind.

She is part of a group that is planning “Word,” Blue Hill’s first literary arts festival, Oct. 20-22 with workshops and readings.

And Haskell borrowed an idea from the agricultural community in which people buy “shares” ahead of the growing season in exchange for vegetables throughout the summer and into fall.

These shares are known as “CSAs” for community-supported agriculture.

At Blue Hill Books, customers buy shares of books, anything from one quarter to a full year, at a cost of $250 to $1,000.

“I’ve been pleased to see the response,” Haskell said. “It works for customers. It simplifies their ability to come in for books. And it’s a great way for people to feel like they can support the store during this transition.”

Statistics also show that traditional print books are still 80 percent of publishers’ business.

“I’m excited about young families who come in and love books,” Haskell said. “Usually that love is in their kids too.”

One little girl comes in often with her parents, who told Haskell their daughter likes to play bookstore at home.

“She lines up the books on her bed and invites her family in,” Haskell said. “She calls herself, ‘Samantha.’”

She keeps up on the newest releases by reading The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, updates provided by publishers’ representatives and news on social media from other booksellers.

Customers also are a good source of new titles, at times ordering something of which Haskell has never heard.

Haskell said the small, independent bookstore can offer many things behemoth online booksellers cannot.

“Customers can speak to a real person and get other recommendations,” she said. “Someone might come in and have a book in mind but then will buy something entirely different. It’s not always the book you are looking for, but the one next to it.”

Haskell said customers who are in Blue Hill seasonally might order their Christmas gift books from her for shipment elsewhere and may stock their own bookshelves the same way.

Eliza Hill, the customer from Brooksville, said she is pleased with the change.

“I’m happy they [Hughs and Sichterman] are getting more time off,” said Hill, “and Samantha is a very friendly and pleasant person to be around.”

Jacqueline's beat covers the eastern Hancock County towns of Lamoine through Gouldsboro as well as Steuben in Washington County. She was a reporter for the New York Times, United Press International and Reuters before moving to Maine. She also publicized medical research at Yale School of Medicine and scientific findings at Yale University for nine years.[email protected]