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When staff at Print: A Bookstore in Portland heard about a fire at a northern Maine elementary school that destroyed thousands of books in the school’s library, they didn’t hesitate to agree to help replace what was lost.
The store set up a wish list of children’s books on its website and invited customers to support the school by purchasing a book. Within 24 hours they had collected around 100 books to be sent to the Dr. Levesque Elementary School in Frenchville, a small town located more than 300 miles to the north on the Canadian border.
“We just started letting people know about it and actually, as of a couple minutes ago, people had purchased (almost) everything we had listed on the wish list, which is so exciting,” Stephanie Heinz, children’s manager and community coordinator for Print, said on Tuesday afternoon.
The bookstore is part of an effort involving a number of Maine authors and literary groups stretching from Portland to Fort Kent to help replace the books lost at the school after fire caused extensive damage on July 25. News Center Maine first reported on the book drive Tuesday.
The entire library collection – about 9,500 books – was lost in the fire, according to School Administrative District 33 librarian and media specialist Tracie Boucher. “The library lost a lot, but in all honesty, my heart goes out to the teachers and the years of preparation and work that they lost,” Boucher said in an email. “It really was like losing a second home for the teachers and staff.”
After the initial shock of the fire, Boucher said she was trying to think of how best to support the teachers and students and she remembered an author, Lynn Plourde, who had visited the school a few times in the past, and reached out to her to see if she would be willing to donate books.
Plourde, who lives in Winthrop but has family ties to Aroostook County, including a grandfather who was born in Frenchville, immediately agreed. She also started thinking about what other connections she could draw on to help rebuild the library collection and began reaching out to other authors and organizations.
“I feel like it’s the least I could do,” said Plourde, 65. “I just thought, ‘Who do you ask?’ and then people have big hearts. If you ask they’re like, ‘Sure. I’d love to,’ and if everyone sends some, it adds up.”
At Print, Heinz said she was happy to help after Plourde told her about the situation and she connected with Boucher, who provided a list of the most-needed books. By Tuesday afternoon almost all the books on the list had been purchased, but Heinz said the store also is collecting monetary donations to help rebuild the library.
“I think one of the biggest things about independent bookstores is we rely so much on community support and therefore I think it’s even more important that bookstores show we are investing back in our community as well,” Heinz said. “… When I heard about this opportunity I just wanted to do what we could.”
A Fort Kent bookstore, Bogan Books, also is involved in the book drive. The store is selling gift certificates, which can be purchased online, which will then be gifted to teachers. “People often go out and buy the books they like and donate that,” said Heidi Carter, the store’s owner. “The school needs books, but not like 100 copies of the same title. This way we can work with (Boucher) and the teachers to fill their shelves with the books they need for their students.”
So far, Carter has collected about $3,000 in donations. The bookstore also is matching 20 cents for each dollar donated. She said the fire dealt a major blow to residents of the area, many of whom have lived there for generations.
“Frenchville is not a large community, so to have a large fire is a big, upsetting thing,” she said.
Dr. Levesque Elementary School is a pre-K-6 school with about 140 students, according to the Maine Department of Education. In addition to Frenchville, the school also serves students in St. Agatha.
Students in first through sixth grades will be moving to Wisdom Middle/High School for the immediate future, Boucher said, and she will be setting up elementary seating at the high school library for the time being. The pre-K and kindergarten students will move to St. John Valley Technical Center.
While the fire adds to what already was shaping up as a difficult start to the school year with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Boucher said the school has been overwhelmed by support. In addition to the book drive, a Facebook page, Giving Back to Dr. Levesque Teachers, has resulted in an outpouring of donations.
Plourde, meanwhile, is happy to see people supporting local businesses, which also have been hit hard by the pandemic, in their quest to support the school.
“It’s beautiful to think of Fort Kent, on the northern tip of Maine, and think of Portland in the south, at Print, working together to support this small school and community,” Plourde said. “If people are going to be buying books and if they can support a local business, too, that’s great.”