Susanne Ward and her husband, Patrick Reilley, moved from California to Maine in 1992 with plans of starting their own business. They decided on a used bookstore and coffee house, as they felt both good coffee and good books were in short supply in their new neighborhood.
Located in the city of Rockland, Rock City (named for the limestone quarries that fueled the city’s growth in the 1800s) became a focal point in town for the artistic crowd, but Ward and Reilley struggled to find quality coffee that was reasonably priced. Within three years, they’d moved into a bigger space that could house the bookstore, café, and a space to roast their own coffee blend, which they began wholesaling. In 1999, they opened a roastery a few blocks south of the café outside of Rockland’s historic district, producing and selling their blend, which also supplied Rock City.
For Ward, Rock City’s employees were family, and even though some kind of employee ownership plan had been in the back of her mind as a “nebulous thing,” she recalls, it never seemed like the right time. “As my husband would say, ‘We have to operate in the black.’”
In 2010, in the midst of the Great Recession, Patrick passed away. The printed book market was also shrinking, rapidly. “I knew that by myself I couldn’t handle it all,” recounts Ward. She sold the bookstore portion of the business to one of her employees, and continued to run the roastery and café, both of which exceed full-time operations, with the café’s kitchen and bakery serving breakfast and lunch, and hosting live music on weekends.
Five years later, things are better for Rock City, though certainly not perfect. And at age 64, Ward is ready to retire. With help from Rob Brown of the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI) in Maine, she is now working on the details of transiting Rock City to worker ownership.