Today I'm honored to present to you the first ever guest post on Pleasant Family Shopping! It’s written by Kendra Bird, a native of Bangor, Maine, anthropology student, avid retail history fan and a friend of this site from almost the very beginning. For those from or familiar with Maine (especially the Bangor area), this will be of particular interest, but Kendra writes about something so many of us can relate to, regardless of location– the closing of a lifelong favorite store and the decline of the local mall. Shown above are some photos, vintage ads and articles she provided for this post. Enjoy!
I went to say goodbye to my childhood bookstore today, but by the time I arrived, it was too late. The lights were off and the shelves, once bursting with books, magazines, gifts, stuffed animals and other items, were bare; some of them had even already been removed from the store’s now-lifeless confines.
This wasn’t the first trip that I’d made to Mr. Paperback, located in Bangor, Maine’s 42-year-old Airport Mall, in the last week. Prior to today’s pilgrimage, I had wandered in a handful of times, purchasing various discounted items from the dwindling stock on its shelves. I had also been fortunate to acquire some memorabilia from the store itself; now in my possession are a number of rescued wooden signs that, for as long as I can recall, stood atop the various bookshelves, advertising the type of offerings present in each section. “SPORTS,” “HISTORY,” “CHILDREN 8-12,” some of them declare to no one in particular. Others, whimsically, show their age: “TIQUES & COLLECTIBLE,” one reads, while another proclaims, “ILDING CONSTRUCTIO.” One, perhaps poignantly, using hand-cut blue adhesive letters, reads simply: “MAINE.”
Mr. Paperback was not just a bookstore…it was a local, independent bookstore, based here in Maine, with several locations around the state. At one time, its reach had been even more widespread, but some of the stores in the chain shuttered as the decades passed. The company had its origins in a downtown Bangor location, half a century ago, and the location to which I personally have such an attachment has been operational since its host mall opened its doors in 1970. Over the years, the mall saw each and every original tenant go out of business, or relocate -- some of them moving across town to the larger Bangor Mall, which opened in 1978 -- aside from Mr. Paperback, Radio Shack, and Doug’s Shop ’n Save; the latter is technically still in operation today as a state-of-the-art Hannaford supermarket, which is now the flagship anchor of the entire shopping center.
Even in 1990, according to a supplement to the Bangor Daily News issue of April 26th of that year, “only a few stores remain[ed] from the stores that [had] opened in the mall” twenty years earlier. Original anchors Freese’s and Woolco, both department stores (the first local to Bangor, the second a nationally-known discounter), were long gone, as were many of the mall’s interior names. Nevertheless, Mr. Paperback stayed in business, first absorbing the space belonging to Spencer’s Gifts, which had relocated to the Bangor Mall, and then part of an adjacent restaurant, the remainder of which is now a Rent-a-Center.
During the same year that the Airport Mall was celebrating its twentieth birthday, I was eight years old going on nine, and starting to purchase my own books and magazines with my allowance money. There were only two places that I regularly did this: Mr. Paperback, and the B. Dalton store that was in the Bangor Mall (astute followers of the ebbs and flows of retail will note that the B. Dalton chain has also met its demise). I vividly remember the day that I purchased my first issue of Disney Adventures magazine at the Airport Mall Mr. Paperback. I remember seeing it on the shelf, finding out that it had a Tale Spin comic in the back of it (back then, we didn’t use the terms “fangirl” or anything like that, but I totally was one in regard to that particular cartoon), and insisting to my parents that I purchase it. This was in the fall of 1990, and I was only nine years old, yet this memory is still etched prominently in my mind over two decades later.
Until today, the children’s magazines and comic books still filled that same section of shelving on the back wall, and, despite no longer belonging to that demographic, I would always wander by there whenever I stopped by the store. The shelves were the same, the carpet was the same (though it seemed to be held together with mailing tape in progressively more places over the years), the (I‘m assuming) anti-shoplifting mirrors that ran above the shelving along the back of the store were the same. I only knew one other store that had mirrors like that, predating the fancy cameras and whatnot that stores boast today: the Bangor Mall CVS, which is also no longer in operation.
Over the years, I have bought fewer and fewer books, despite being a voracious reader as a child. This is largely due to simply being too busy to read for leisure; academic pursuits and gainful employment take up the majority of my time, and what little reading that I do manage to do is predominantly related to my areas of study. Despite this, I did pick up one book last week during Mr. Paperback’s “Going out of Business” sale; it was a graphic novel, which is not a literary format that I typically gravitate towards (though my husband is a big comic book guy), but it looked appealing to me. I think back now to that day in the waning weeks of fall 1990 -- it was not the potential intellectual merit of Disney Adventures that leapt out at me; it was the comic in the back. So, too, was the root of my initial interest in Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up, which I read cover-to-cover a couple days later and found greatly enjoyable. Will it, decades from now, hold as firm a place in my memories as that now dog-eared Disney magazine from days long past?
The brick-and-mortar bookstore is an endangered species, much like another beloved institution of mine, the brick-and-mortar record store. Both of these are being replaced by commerce centered around electronic books (ewww!) and mp3s (yuck!) in exchange for physical formats. While I jest somewhat -- these media formats both have their uses and their merits, and I have been known to utilize both at various times -- there is nothing like holding a physical book in your hand, and seeing the words come alive with the turning of each page, or carefully placing a record on a vintage turntable and hearing its music, crisp and clean and warm, emanating from your speakers. That said, Mr. Paperback’s resilience in a dying industry, especially within the confines of a mall that has teetered on the precipice above “dead mall” status at least once or twice during its lengthy history, is nothing short of impressive. All good things do seem to find their way to eventual endings, though, and it is into the annals of history that the longstanding local book chain must now transition.
It is into those same annals of history, too, for the memories of Mr. Paperback that I hold so dear. All the bookstores that I frequented in my childhood are gone, as well as the stores at which I bought my first cassette tapes years ago. The Airport Mall itself, too, bears little resemblance to the mall that I grew up with, in which I went shopping with my mother, my grandmother, or other relatives. The closing of Mr. Paperback is almost the final death blow to the mall that I knew. Rines, the local women’s clothing store that my mother used to drag me into, despite my pleas to not have to endure another store full of clothes and devoid of toys? It’s now the county DMV office, though it bears many architectural vestiges of its former self. Twin City Coin, where I bought baseball cards with my dad as a kid? It’s now a sketchy establishment hawking “For Tobacco Use Only” paraphernalia. Dream Machine, the arcade that my brother and I used to take our report cards to in order to get free tokens for games? It’s now the “Maine Smoke Shop,” a considerably less-kid-friendly place. Freese’s Department Store? I bid farewell to that local legend back in the late 1980s, when a much younger version of myself peered through a darkened doorway into a lifeless store, where countertops and registers were covered by white cloths, almost like a room full of inanimate ghosts; this I vividly remember as the moment that I became interested in retail history, and the lives and deaths of individual stores, an interest that, obviously, remains with me now.
As Mr. Paperback goes gentle into that good night (apologies to Dylan Thomas), I find myself both regretful and relieved that work and academic obligations prevented me from getting to the store in time to say goodbye on this day, which I had been informed would contain its final hours of operation. It felt like I was in a film as I walked hastily into the mall after driving over directly from my workplace. I saw the darkness behind the plate-glass windows before I even rounded the corner. I knew it was over, and I was greatly saddened, but I also knew that I had been spared the inevitable emotional awkwardness of saying goodbye to a space that was so crucial to my childhood.
I snapped a few photos, peered wistfully through the glass into the darkened interior of the store, and walked back outside. I called my husband, told him I was at the Airport Mall, and said, “I didn’t make it in time.” He understood.
Some might find it silly, the act of saying goodbye to a place. But sentimentality is powerful, and while some are not burdened by it, others form great attachments to those things which provoke feelings of nostalgia -- the sights, sounds, tastes of our pasts -- the “good old days” that were rarely actually as good as we consider them to be in retrospect. I am in the latter camp, and I find no shame in that.
So farewell, Mr. Paperback. You will always have a place in my memories, and those, I’m sure, of many other people as well.
Oh, and thanks for selling me that big computer desk for five dollars the other day, the one from the back room that had the cobwebs and price stickers from 1995 on it. It’s found a good home, I assure you.
Maybe someday, I’ll even write a book on it.
Mr. Paperback closed on March 26, 2012. The first photo is from their now defunct website, the others were taken by Kendra.