BELGRADE — Long before opening Oliver & Friends Bookshop and Reading Room, Renee Cunningham referred to the open space at a quaint one-story white building just on the edge of downtown as “my bookstore.”

Those walks down Main Street in Belgrade Village with her husband, Scott, ultimately resulted in the 45-year-old Cunningham fulfilling her lifelong dream. As Oliver & Friends readies to celebrate one year open in business, Cunningham is reflecting on the challenges of launching her business during the coronavirus pandemic and looks forward to the successful summer local businesses anticipate.

“I had been dreaming about a bookstore for 10 years,” Cunningham said behind the register Wednesday morning. “It was a bee in my bonnet, and I couldn’t let it go.”

Oliver & Friends Bookshop and Reading Room, right, in Belgrade Lakes Village, is celebrating one year in business Saturday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

At the tip of Belgrade Village’s downtown area on Main Street and State Route 27, Oliver & Friends, named for one of Cunningham’s four rescue cats, opened its 87 Main St. doors to in-person shopping in June 2020. After offering curbside service during its first month, the bookstore opened two months later than anticipated.

Even opening the store came with a bit of hesitancy. The proliferation of e-books and other online reading avenues caused minor trepidation, but after some research, Cunningham found print books remain in vogue.

A recent story from the Associated Press cited data from the American Booksellers Association saying their membership bounced back over the course of the pandemic. According to Publishers Weekly annual data, print book sales increased 8.2% in 2020 from 2019. Independent bookstores, indie for short, like Cunningham’s are not opened with an intent on competing with the giants, rather to fill a community niche.

Renee and Scott Cunningham, formerly of Massachusetts, first moved to Dixmont before relocating to Belgrade three and a half years ago, a mile down the road from the bookshop. Renee Cunningham formerly worked as a human resources professional and bookkeeper at a small business, but after taking a job that didn’t fit in July 2019, Cunningham “realized it was time to pursue this dream” of opening a bookstore.

She signed the lease in September 2019 and prepared a business plan while working a part-time job with a temporary staffing agency. Cunningham intended on opening in April, and even attended a “bookstore bootcamp” put on by Paz & Associates in Amelia Island, Florida, in February 2020.

“I was feeling like a million bucks,” Cunningham said, “and it was about a week later when the stock market crashed and we all started to hear the word ‘coronavirus.’ I realized I just had to dig my heels in and hope for the best.”

As many businesses around the world shut their doors during the coronavirus pandemic, Cunningham worked to create a viable model — survival mode — during an uncertain time. The shelves were not as stocked as she initially anticipated, but the extra space did give room to comply with physical distancing requirements.

While book groups, writing clubs, author signings and children’s story time were put on hold, Oliver & Friends partnered with the Belgrade Public Library to host a virtual three-part series on race relations late last summer. The group events are soon to come back.

Oliver & Friends is open to the general public Wednesday-Sunday over the summer, but customers may request to shop by appointment. Scott Cunningham is a house painter by trade and painted all the store’s bookshelves.

The store is celebrating its birthday Saturday, a delayed grand opening of sorts. Local author Earl Smith will be on hand to sign books from noon to 2 p.m.

Renee Cunningham of Oliver & Friends Bookshop and Reading Room unpacks new books Wednesday at the store in Belgrade Lakes Village. Cunningham is celebrating one year in business Saturday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

And after a week of being open sans masking and physical distancing requirements, Cunningham is ready for business to pick up. An “incredible” flurry of interest after a recent weekend craft show on the Village Green served as a hopeful reminder of interest in the store and supporting local business.

“The way I was able to make it throughout the first year was the community standing on their heads to support me,” Cunningham said. “They embraced my store, and I am so happy for that.”

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