Non-profit coffee shop offers community a gathering place in Limestone
LIMESTONE, Maine — Brian and Julie Weston had no idea they would be opening a non-profit coffee shop and bookstore in a century old Masonic lodge when they moved to Limestone in 2015.
The Westons held a grand opening for Manaus Books & Coffee Shop, located at 30 Main Street, on Sept. 4, and currently offer a variety of coffees, along with some snacks, shirts, and thousands of books. Customers can follow recommended donation amounts for the coffee, or make suggested donations each month to enjoy “guilt free” beverages.
“Some people pay the recommended donations, and we have others who pay more, and there are some who come in and get their coffee for free,” Julie said, “and that’s fine. That’s the way it should be. That’s why we’re here.”
Julie said the decision to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit stemmed from the couple’s goal of giving back to the community the two now call home.
“We were given all this space, and we need to be good stewards of that,” Julie said. “We want to live our lives, bring glory to God, and better this world for His kingdom. That’s our goal: to be there for other people.”
This goal inspired the formation of Operation Limestone, a philanthropic organization that the couple also recently started “to promote the development and growth of Limestone.” Proceeds from the store will go back into the building as well as into Operation Limestone.
“Even though Brian and I are very devoted Christians,” Julie said, “We don’t see this as being a place for just Christians. We see it as a broader mission that can benefit the whole town, economically, spiritually, and socially.”
To help raise funds, the store also sells shirts and hoodies. Some feature the Maine School of Science and Mathematics logo, and others display the Manaus logo along with the phrase, “I got caffeinated at Manaus Books and Coffee Shop.”
Brian said the space will soon offer much more in the future, and that he and his wife are checking the suggestion box and have an “expanding list” of what to add.
“People are using the suggestion box, which is good,” Julie said. “We’re learning all about different types of teas we had no idea existed.”
Julie said she’d like to see the community use the space as a hub, a place for people young and old to get to know one another, and to have small events such as card games, classic movie nights, and possibly live music.
The feedback has been generally positive, according to the Westons.
“I was overwhelmed by how many people in the community came out for our grand opening,” Julie said. “People who came in all had positive things to say, and our coffee has already received accolades.”
Brian said the support was “really overwhelming. We haven’t heard much from the town [while renovating the building] so we were really touched by the turnout.”
So far, Julie says the suggestions are product orientated, and that none criticize the space itself.
“Hot chocolate is coming,” Julie said. “I just have to perfect my recipe.”
The Westons also operate an online book and Brodart book cover business called “Manaus Books,” which they started while living in Nashville, Tennessee in 2006. The business was named after a city on the Amazon River in Brazil as a reference to Amazon, the company that only sold books when Brian and Julie began their online store.
The two have a special connection to Brazil, and formerly hosted an exchange student from the South American country. It was during this time that Brian acquired a book collection, inspiring them to move ahead with the name and business.
“We wanted to piggyback on the name “Amazon,” which is in Brazil,” Julie said, “and we were also supporting an orphanage there. So we took the capital city of Amazonas, which happens to be Manaus on the Amazon River.”
Their new website, manausbooks.com, opened in August, according to Julie, and is “still under construction.” The site offers Brodart book covers while their Amazon web page offers thousands of books, along with the covers.
Because the new site was built with Shopify, Julie said they are only able to offer so many listings, and that they may offer their books on that page as well at some point in the future.
The decision to open a brick and mortar store while running the online business did not happen overnight, but the wheels were set in motion once the Westons decided to move to Limestone after seeing that the area offers relatively inexpensive real estate.
Since meeting in Chicago on a church bus in 1990, the Westons have moved seven times.
“The first time we moved was to Vermont after my husband and I got married,” Julie said. “He already owned a home in the state and we wanted to start our life there.”
After nine years in Vermont, the Westons wanted to do something different, so they sold their house and moved to Virginia, where Julie attended graduate school. After school, the two moved to Nashville, where Julie took on a teaching position. However, she was soon offered a full time position at the University of Michigan, so the couple began a caretaking career in upstate New York, looking after a client’s estate.
“When we were in Tennessee,” Julie said. “My husband found out about his northern Maine ancestry, so we wanted to [someday] get something as close to New England as possible.”
After four years in New York, the Westons took on another caretaking position in New Hampshire, then moved to Mount Vernon, Maine, for about a month before moving to Limestone two years ago.
They found a home here in 2015 that initially could accommodate their online business, Manaus Books.
“It met our needs, but just barely,” said Julie. “We were really crunching for space, and were tripping over the poor dog and cat.”
This inspired the entrepreneurial couple to seek another inexpensive property to store their inventory, which included nearly 8,000 books. The Westons decided to meet with Limestone Town Manager Fred Ventresco, who suggested in early 2016 that they look into the old masonic lodge building on Main Street.
“When we first saw the building we thought ‘no way,’” Julie said.
Brian said that at the time they weren’t able to see the first floor, where the coffee shop is now located, because the front entrance was blocked off by ice and snow.
“We could only see the basement and upstairs,” Brian said. “The building had been abandoned; there was ice on the floor, rust, and mildew. It wasn’t a pretty sight, so we ended up saying, ‘No thanks.’”
They later grew more curious, however, about the first floor.
Brian said their opinion of the property changed once they had access, but that they were still deterred by the idea of heating such a large building with an estimated 10,000 square feet of space in order to run a small business.
According to Julie, the Masons wanted their building to “go to someone who had a plan,” which meant the Westons needed to expand on their online business to help occupy the space.
“We started asking around town,” Julie said, “and it seemed like everyone we spoke to wanted a coffee house or a place to hang out. It was all we heard.”
Brian and Julie both wanted to help the town, and thought the building also could be used as a social space for students from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, located just a short walk away. They met with MSSM Executive Director Luke Shorty, who Brian said suggested that students would come if there were books.
Conceptual ideas for the space began to percolate, and the Masons eventually allowed the Westons to acquire the building.
“Then we found more issues,” Julie said. “There was very little heat on the first floor; almost every radiator was compromised and had to be replaced.”
Due to ice and water in the building, turning the electricity back on was the scariest part of renovations.
“We put rubber down everywhere before turning on the electricity,” Brian said.
Then, plans to open the shop in 2016 were dampened due to a “slight roof collapse,” aggravated by the roof drain.
“There were lots of hurdles, but we’re here and we’re open,” Brian said.
The couple declined to say how much they have has spent on buying and renovating the building, but Brian said, “We’re glad to have this building and share it with the community.”
After giving up the space two to three years ago due to issues with tenants and heating costs, the Masons are back in the building with a permanent lease agreement, allowing them to use the temple again.
“The more the merrier,” said Brian. “I couldn’t imagine heating all of this just for Julie and me.”
At one point, the building housed a local bank, and Julie said that business’ decision to move was a “huge blow” to the Masons, resulting in a significant loss of income.
“They had a couple of apartments in here and their tenants weren’t always the best about paying on time,” Julie said. “They had to evict some people and when they did, the tenants ended up wrecking the apartment upstairs.”
As a result, a room on the upper floor needs “complete remodeling.” In spite of this, a musical duo is using another room on the second floor as a practice space and Alcoholics Anonymous is also holding upstairs meetings. In the future, Julie said she would like to install a kitchenette.
Julie said they are not finished renovating and that they have plans for the basement, which is currently being used for storage space.
All in all, each floor of the building is roughly 3,600 square feet, and Julie estimates that the entire building is roughly 10,000 square feet. While there is plenty of potential for the space, the Westons aren’t planning too far ahead.
“Anytime I plan something too far out into the future, it never works out,” Brian said. “If we get any extra money, it will go toward the building.”
“I think we’re here to stay,” Brian said. “We’ve moved a lot and are at the end of our rope with that.”
“Imagine taking 8,000 books with you every time you move,” Julie said.
“You have to grit your teeth through the winters,” Brian acknowledged about living in northern Maine.
“But the summers are beautiful,” Julie said.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” added Brian, “but it’s a treasure.”