Cassidy James Taylor, owner of Grump & Sunshine, a Belfast bookshop focused on romance novels. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

BELFAST — Cailyn Wheeler woke up at 3 a.m. one November morning to set out on a two-hour drive from Gorham to a bookstore in Belfast.

She could easily have gone book shopping closer to home or on her computer. But Grump & Sunshine caters exclusively to romance readers like her – and from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. it was holding its annual early bird sale, offering 15% off all its titles – its LGBTQ+ rom-coms and bodice rippers, enemies-to-lovers stories and tales of the passion between kings and queens.

Grump & Sunshine opened in May, against all odds in an online world where you no longer have to go anywhere to get something to read. But, like other niche stores in Maine, it’s hoping its atmosphere and focus on a distinct and passionate group of buyers will serve as a buffer against Amazon and the big-box world of stores like Target and Walmart.

The pandemic was a death knell for so many local shops. Over 1,700 of Maine’s small businesses shuttered from 2019 to 2020 alone, according to U.S. Small Business Administration data.

But people who felt compelled to support local businesses cushioned that fall. Maine’s small businesses managed to bounce back during the pandemic. Though 8,763 businesses closed from 2020 to 2022, 13,913 new small businesses took their place.

“Small businesses in this state continue to be successful because they’re resilient,” said Diane Sturgeon, director of Maine’s U.S. Small Business Administration district. “They know how to make it happen. They know how to adjust to the market. They understand their customers.”


The strategy is working on Wheeler, who often shops online and in big box stores. She caught the romance novel bug a year ago and has been driving to Belfast every other week since Grump & Sunshine opened. She’s spent at least $1,300 there, purchasing 63 books and counting. Her genre of choice, after all, specializes in page-turners and quick reads, which means her book pile requires constant replenishment.

“I went to Grump & Sunshine totally blind on how that was going to go, and I just fell in love with it,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler loves that the bookstore has silly sections organized by themes only romance-book experts will recognize – monster and sports, mafia and fantasy – and that she can find romance reads from Maine authors she’d never encounter in a regular bookstore, where romance typically gets a shelf or two in a corner. She loves that bookstore owner Cassidy James Taylor is focused on this one slice of book culture – and always knows what Wheeler should read next.

Even the shop’s name is a play on a beloved romance trope – sourpuss meets a sunny person and they hate each other until somehow they fall in love – made most famous by “Pride and Prejudice.”

“I walked in, looking at everything she offers and I felt like I was seen. Someone offers the things I like, and it’s not weird. It’s not wrong,” Wheeler said. “I can read the back of these books and be like, ‘OK, that’s a little bit much, but I’ll try it.’ There’s no judgment on what you want to read, even the most far-fetched interests.”

That’s precisely why Taylor opened the shop. Romance fiction has boomed in the last handful of years. It was the second-highest-grossing fiction genre in 2022 with a 52% increase in sales, according to Publishers Weekly, and those good times are likely to keep coming. Taylor felt confident she was making a good decision with Grump and Sunshine’s business model. But she also wanted to create a vast library filled with literature that book snobs tend to turn their noses up at.


“For the past several years, I’ve read nothing but romance. I could not tell you the last time I read a book that wasn’t within the romance genre,” Taylor said. “I get told on a daily basis that it’s so nice to see a store that, despite being the biggest genre, is shoved to the side, overlooked.”

Peter Velanzon browses the movies at Opera House Video in Belfast. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Specialty shops are hardly unique to Maine, but their survival can seem surprising in a state where the population is small and spread out. Portland, of course, has many small specialty shops – stores such as Uncommon Paws (specializing in dog collars and leashes), Simply Scandinavian, the Sock Shop, and Terrarium.

A hundred miles up the coast, Belfast is home to stores selling handmade bean bag chairs, board games, clothing made from alpaca wool, and dollhouses with the tiny objects that fill them. It’s also home to what might be Maine’s last video rental store, Opera House Video.

That’s where Peter Velanzon was on a Friday afternoon, inquiring about the show he had requested and perusing the collection that is always expanding with new releases and unique finds.

Naturally, Velanzon can access free video streaming services: YouTube, Tubi, and Freevee. He regularly takes stock of the hundreds of thousands of movies and shows that he can watch at no cost. But he never presses play. He instead heads to Opera House Video at least three days a week to ask about the latest finds and check on what’s available from his watch list.


He goes because he loves the place and knows how rare such stores have become. He loves the popcorn machine at the front of the store, the boxes of candy that frame the cash register, and the wooden floors that creak as you wander the aisles, stacked front to back with 34,000 DVDs. And store owner Denis Howard is usually around for a good chat about what to watch. 

“It’s different than just sitting on your couch with the remote control, scrolling down, and then, boom, click the movie and you’re watching it,” Velanzon said. “It’s a different feeling when you go to rent it, pick up some popcorn, and then come home to watch it. It’s always a warm welcome here.”

Velanzon hasn’t been able to get that experience anywhere else. And he takes great pleasure in shelling out $40 or more each week – even though he’s on a tight budget and has to return the DVDs after a week.

Howard purchased Opera House Video in 2017 from a family that had run the shop since it opened in the ’90s. Howard’s day job is at radio station WERU, where he is the music director and a DJ. In his spare time, he fields questions, searches the archives, and makes tailored recommendations for customers. The business has ebbed and flowed over the years, peppered with financial challenges. But Velanzon and Howard’s other frequent flyers make it worth it for Denis to keep the shop open.

“What makes me even happier, when I think of (my customers), is knowing the guy that wants to watch ‘The Sopranos’ for the third time or this 23-year-old woman that loves ‘Rookie Blue.’ When they come to the door, ready to watch the next season, I’ll try to have it ready as they walk up the aisle,” Howard said. “There’s this feeling that you know these people. They become part of your life. It’s almost like I’m inviting people to my house to see a collection of stuff like I lend it to friends.”

Avonlea Lecher, 12, and Matthew Lecher at Heavenly Bean Bags. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer



Down the block, Heavenly Bean Bags is a place to find respite from the Christmas shopping stress. The shop is home to handmade bean bag chairs. Co-owner Valerie Lecher started the business 21 years ago while at a crossroads, trying to figure out what was next in her life.

“Everybody kept asking, ‘What do you love?'” Lecher said. “I realized, well, I love my bean bag.”

From its humble beginnings in Brunswick’s Cooks Corner Shopping Center, Heavenly Bean Bags became a go-to for artists, corporations, and authors. Lecher and her husband, Matt, have made custom chairs for Google. Over the years, the shop moved from Brunswick to a short stint at the Maine Mall in South Portland and then to Belfast in 2008.

Wanda Ellis, a homesteader from Mount Desert Island, visits the store twice a year and leaves with two bean bag chairs each time. She happened upon the shop two years ago while waiting for her husband to finish his dental appointment and has become a regular, buying for both herself and her seven grandchildren.

Jamie Lucas, owner of Jamie’s Miniatures in Belfast, peeks into a dollhouse. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Sandwiched in between the romance bookshop and bean bag chair store, an explorer can enter an entirely different world: Jamie’s Miniatures, a dollhouse shop Jamie Lucas opened in 1996.

There are no empty surfaces at Jamie’s Miniatures. Ornate dollhouses dominate the store, some straight out of the 1980s and others a snapshot of the Gilded Age. There’s a standalone general store, an elaborate model airplane hanging from the ceiling, and a cabin that could overlook the ocean Down East. The rest of the space brims with tiny plates of food, dolls, tools, and furniture.


Lucas opened the store to spread the joy she felt playing with dollhouses as a child. On a Friday afternoon, a family of five burst through to build upon their new collections. The eldest, 9-year-old Elijah Oaks, was thrilled to tell Lucas about finishing his chores. That meant he could get some miniatures off the free table.

The store is also the home base for collectors and hobbyists who take the art form, known as “miniatures,” seriously. The Maine Maritime Academy in Castine welcomes hundreds of artisans every June to grow their miniature-building skills. When the International Guild of Miniature Artisans’ school is in session, craftsmen trickle into Jamie’s Miniatures on the hunt.


That’s another perk that customers of Maine’s specialty shops find at these places: community by way of shared passion.

At Jamie’s Miniatures, Lucas sees how it fosters friendship in people of all ages. A few weeks ago, three women who didn’t know one another walked through the door in quick succession. They laughed and perused the shop together.

At Opera House Video, Velanzon is never bored of waiting in a long line. While Howard checks other customers out, Velanzon exchanges movie recommendations with other customers.

At Grump & Sunshine, Taylor and Wheeler find community during “slumber party chats” – conversations about the weird and unusual corners within the worlds of fictional love stories.

“I love being able to walk into her store and know, OK, I might find a friend today. I’m in a safe place. I feel confident. I am not being judged,” Wheeler said. “You might have just met Cassidy for the first time and you already feel like, ‘You’re my best friend, and I could talk to you forever.'”

Comments are no longer available on this story