Mariah Hughs and her husband, Nick Sichterman, founded Blue Hill Books in 1986. It sits on Pleasant Street, in Blue Hill, Maine, a coastal town with a population that swells during the warmer months and thins out again each winter, reduced to its cast of fewer than three thousand year-round residents. This past winter, in the midst of that slow season, Hughs and Sichterman retired, leaving the bookstore in the hands of Samantha Haskell, who had been their full-time employee since 2010. Haskell had working capital to survive the first year, but, in order to maintain the breadth of the store’s inventory, she needed to raise additional funds. Rather than compromise the shelves, she looked to local farms for inspiration, devising a plan modelled after “community-supported agriculture,” commonly referred to by its initials, C.S.A. Blue Hill Books would become a community-supported bookseller: a C.S.B.
The C.S.A. model is simple: consumers commit a certain amount of money to a farm up front in exchange for a portion of the future harvest. Farmers use the resources to support themselves during the slower months. Over the past few decades, C.S.A.s have grown in popularity across the United States. Many farms on the Blue Hill peninsula have adopted such programs, and Haskell watched a local brewery, Strong Brewing Company, get its operation off the ground with a community-supported beer program. “The idea of purchasing a season’s or a year’s worth of books seemed like an interesting way to structure thinking about a customer’s relationship to the store,” Haskell said recently. At Blue Hill Books, C.S.B. members can purchase a “share” for a thousand dollars—or partial shares for two hundred or five hundred dollars—and draw on that credit to buy books throughout the year. “It’s not a donation; it’s not an investment,” Sichterman explained. It’s more of a “gift certificate for yourself.”
Blue Hill Books has a large porch, with four white columns and a chalkboard listing current best-sellers. It’s the kind of place where you can “come in and spend a while,” as the New Yorker writer Roger Angell, who summers near Blue Hill, put it. “It’s one of my favorite places, when I’m up there in Maine, to be,” he said. Angell is one of many writers who spend summers on the Blue Hill peninsula. The writer Jonathan Lethem, who is a regular customer, described the shares as “a way of literalizing” the implicit feeling of ownership and belonging that many people have for their local bookstores. (Lethem said that he’s not yet a member of the C.S.B. but that he can’t wait to return to Blue Hill Books this summer to buy a share.) Beth Gutcheon, whose novels include “Still Missing” and “Gossip,” was one of the first people to become a C.S.B. member. The philosopher Daniel Dennett, who spends part of the year in Little Deer Isle, about twenty minutes from Blue Hill, recently dropped by the store to purchase a share. “It’s worked for farmers. It should work for the bookstore,” he said…
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