Nanette Gionfriddo, owner of the gifts and book shop Beyond the Sea in downtown Belfast, exudes a kind of infectious optimism — the kind that might be able to convince most of downtown Belfast to start an annual book festival, say.

When a pair of bookstores opened within a block of her this spring, however, she initially prepared for the worst. There was already one other bookstore close by, at least two outside of the downtown area, and a number of other downtown merchants sold some books as a part of their business.

“My fear was that we were all going to go out of business,” she said.

But the effect was just the opposite. Business improved and, according one of the other business owners, people seemed to be coming to Belfast for the sheer variety and volume of books — from bestsellers to rare and out of print titles — all within easy walking distance of the city’s central intersection. Gionfriddo thought of Charing Cross Road in London, an area known for its used and rare bookshops, and consequently a destination for booklovers.

“I thought, why don’t we have a festival and get the word out in Maine and New England and further that we are a book town — a literary town,” Gionfriddo said.

The result is the first Belfast Bound Book Festival, a weekend-long celebration featuring readings, book signings, author Q&A sessions and other literary events held at locations around downtown Friday through Sunday, July 29 through 31.

George Siscoe of The Old Professor’s Bookshop, echoed Gionfriddo’s sentiment about Charing Cross Road, adding the more extreme example of Hay-on-Wye — a Welsh town of less than 2,000 residents, located 50 miles from the closest major city, but with roughly 30 bookshops.

“It’s the only reason to go there,” he said.

And Siscoe has. For the books.

As in those places, he said, each of the Belfast shops has its areas of specialization.

Both The Old Professor’s and the newly opened branch of Artisan Books and Bindery across the street sell used and rare books, but Siscoe said they rarely stock the same titles. If he doesn’t have what someone is looking for, he will gladly send the customer across the street.

Beyond the Sea sells what Gionfriddo described as a hand-picked selection of titles, often accompanied by printouts of her own research on the book or — if she’s read it — a Post-It note with her own comments.

Around the corner on High Street, Bella Books and Antiques stocks mostly newer titles and bestsellers. Siscoe compared the inventory to that of The Fertile Mind, which closed last year after a 30-year run on Upper Main Street, several doors up from The Old Professor’s.

Bella Books owners Gary Guida and Kim Cashman didn’t know about the Fertile Mind when they arrived from Virginia with 27,000 pounds of books and antiques and proceeded to sort it out over the course of several months prior to opening this spring. They were late getting on board with the festival, in part because they were busy moving in, but have since scheduled several book signings for the festival weekend and are working on others in advance of the event.

Asked about the number of booksellers within sight of his own shop, Guida had nothing but praise, saying the stores complement each other. At that moment, Siscoe walked in and offered to advertise Bella’s book signings in the window of his own store. While the two men were talking, Cashman elaborated on the benefits of having several bookstores nearby.

“Gary always tells people, you can’t be the Library of Congress,” she said. “If we don’t have a book, we send them to Old Professor’s, or they send them to us.”

The Belfast Bound Book Festival has scheduled more than 20 events at venues ranging from The Purple Baboon and High Street Gallery to the Belfast Free Library and the Colonial Theatre and, of course, the bookshops.

Other features include a flash mob-esque Random Acts of Reading in which readers will pipe up unannounced at random locations around town; Please Be Seated readings, 10-minute excerpts of poetry and prose read from the artist-designed sidewalk seating installation of the same name; and an exhibition of historical books at the Belfast Historical Society & Museum. For a complete schedule of events, visit

VillageSoup Reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at 207-338-3333 or by email to