This week “Local Heroes” celebrates entrepreneurs who have established businesses in Rockland in the last 20 years and who have played a significant role in the city’s resurgence. Several businesses that fall into this category will be featured in the coming months. We begin with the story of Rock City Coffee Roasters/Rock City Books & Coffee and owner/proprietors Susanne Ward and Patrick Reilley.

Susanne and Patrick moved to Maine from Northern California. Between jobs and tiring of the fast lane life in California, they accepted an invitation to visit friends in Spruce Head in July 1989. They were instantly seduced by Midcoast Maine in summer, including the rugged rural landscape and the sparkling blue waters of Penobscot Bay. The two returned the following year to look for a home, ultimately settling on a spacious two-story house and barn on Masonic Street in Rockland, two blocks from the city’s Main Street. “After looking at several locations along the Midcoast, we chose Rockland because of its working waterfront and blue collar heritage,” Reilley said. “We saw it as a place with authenticity and great potential.” Maine officially became their residence in July 1991.

For the first year Susanne edited medical and other technical publications. Patrick developed a business shipping fresh fish to a distribution network in California. They also explored their new surroundings, which included meeting an impressive variety of interesting, creative people scattered throughout the Midcoast.

As that first year ended, Susanne and Patrick were ready to explore a new enterprise. Patrick’s distribution network had dissolved and Susanne’s editing projects were completed. Motivated by their inability to find a good cup of coffee and sensing the need for a central gathering place to attract the far-flung creative community they were getting to know, they decided to open a coffee house that included used books. Their mission – to create a comfortable place where everyone would feel welcome and that would be a focal point for the creative community to gather and exchange ideas. In preparation for the opening, Susanne scoured the area for used books, storing them in the couple’s spacious barn.

Second Read Books & Coffee, the first combination of its kind in Maine, opened in a 1,000-square-foot location on Main Street in Rockland the week of the 1992 Maine Lobster Festival. Within a few months, Susanne and Patrick knew they had made a good decision. People came, enjoyed the coffee and snacks, browsed the growing collection of used book offerings, and lingered for conversation. Most important, they returned, often to introduce friends to this new venture. In addition to coffee and books, Second Read became a performance venue for area musicians, including Susanne who is an accomplished Irish piper.

On the occasion of their first anniversary and as a thank you, Susanne and Patrick offered a concert to the community at the Methodist Church on Union Street (now the Wyeth Center of the Farnsworth Art Museum). The roster of performers included many of the region’s best-known musicians. “It was great, more of a folk festival than a concert,” said one attendee. Many of the performers were loyal Second Read patrons.

The business continued to grow to the point in 1995 where larger quarters were needed to serve the growing customer base, house the burgeoning selection of books (many of them supplied by patrons), create a kitchen in order to add lunch to the expanding menu, and construct a raised stage for entertainment. The owners wanted to remain in the heart of downtown Rockland. They settled on a 3,000-square-foot space in the Syndicate Block on Main Street across from KeyBank and the Strand Theatre. It remains their primary retail space to the present day.

Many customers generously pitched in to help with the move. They packed and moved cartons of books, equipment and other supplies. The physical transition was accomplished over a weekend. As anticipated the business continued to expand its customer base with the addition of lunch and an expanded offering of evening concerts.

The desire to sell the highest quality coffee prompted the next major decision in 1996. Having frequently changed suppliers since opening in 1992, the partners decided that the best way to secure the consistently high quality they were seeking was to buy and roast the coffee beans themselves. Patrick set out to master the art of roasting, which included researching the history of coffee roasting in Rockland. Among other findings, he discovered that two nationally known coffee brands had their roots in Rockland. Two local family members migrated to California in the early part of the 20th century where they began selling coffee out of a spice wagon. That small beginning eventually morphed into the coffee company that bears the family name today, Hills Brothers. Adriel Bird, a Rockland native and an owner of the John Bird Company, moved to Boston in the 1920s where, among other ventures, he purchased the La Touraine Coffee Company, another well-known national brand.

It took Patrick several months to become comfortable with the roasting process. The evolution involved studying the great variety of coffee beans from around the world, months of trial and error roasting and many burned batches of beans in the quest for the perfect blends. By 1999 the partners were ready. They purchased a building on South Main Street and opened their own small batch roastery, Rock City Coffee Roasters. As their Web site notes, “providing the highest quality beans, with an emphasis on sustainable farming and organic coffees” is their goal.

In addition to producing coffee for their retail business at Second Read, they soon attracted wholesale and retail customers seeking special blends or great coffee for restaurants and a host of other commercial enterprises. In 2002, Rock City Coffee Roasters was awarded the prestigious TOPS Award for Excellence from the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Today Rock City Online fields orders for its array of special blend coffees from across the nation.

Rock City’s evolution has not been without disappointment. In 2003 Susanne opened the Rock City Café in Rockland’s north end shopping center anchored by Shaw’s Supermarket and Staples Office Supplies. They hoped to serve shoppers from outlying communities who did not want to venture downtown. Two years later, having been unable to attract enough customers, the operation was closed. “We guessed wrong about shopping habits in this instance,” Susanne said. “It was a costly lesson for us.”

Another disappointment was narrowly averted in 2008. Following complaints by two adjacent neighbors about the odor emanating from the Rock City roastery, Rockland’s code enforcement office cited the business for violating its odor ordinance. The ordinance had been enacted in the 1980s in response to a public outcry over the stench from a waterfront plant that processed fish waste. Raising the roastery smokestack 15 feet above the building, getting the support of many area residents (including 1,200 who signed a petition labeled “Save Our Smell”), and having the judgment of an ad hoc odor committee that the situation had improved dramatically allowed Rock City to continue operating.

Approaching their 20th year of operation, Rock City Books & Coffee (the name “Second Read” was dropped in 2005 to establish a unified brand identity) continues to flourish as a major gathering place in the heart of downtown Rockland for people from around the Midcoast and beyond.

Susanne and Patrick have made an impact on their community in many other ways, too. Rock City has been a significant small business employer. More than 200 people have worked in the business since the 1992 opening, all of them for above the minimum wage and with benefits. “Working at Rock City is like being part of a large family,” said one longtime employee. “I love the atmosphere here.” There are currently more than 20 staff members.

As it proudly notes on the company’s Web site, “As members of a small business community, one of our goals is to help develop and enhance the quality of life in our region through our support of education, the arts, the environment and our employees … As members of the larger world community, we strive to recognize our obligations to those with whom we share this planet by conscious environmental practices, charitable giving and educational programs … In [recent years] we have raised thousands of dollars to help the victims of worldwide disasters … We contribute regularly to our local soup kitchen, libraries and schools, as well as to fundraising events for local not-for-profits.”

In addition, Patrick and Susanne have given back to the community as volunteers and in public service. Two examples: The partners were among the original organizers of the effort to preserve Rockland’s old high school building, which led to the formation of the Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education. Patrick served a term on Rockland’s City Council in the late ’90s.

A sampling of comments from Rock City patrons over the years: “The only good coffee we’ve had since we arrived in the United States.” … “You are the reason we moved here.” … “Thank you for the wonderful experience I’ve had working here.” … “The best soups I’ve ever had.” … “What an incredible collection of books!” … “You must be so proud of what you and your staff have created here.”

In closing I have a confession. A friend introduced me to the Second Read shortly after it opened. After about a half hour of coffee sipping, book browsing and conversation with the proprietors, I left with my friend who queried, “What do you think?” I responded, “They seem pleasant enough, and the coffee is very good. However, after one Maine winter I predict it will be ‘California, here I come; right back where I started from’ (or equally smug words to that effect). How wrong I was. And thankfully so when I think of the impressive number of contributions Susanne Ward and Patrick Reilley have made – and continue to make – to life in their adopted community. As major players in Rockland’s resurgence over the last two decades, I salute Susanne and Patrick as local heroes.

John Bird is a retired independent school educator and leader and nationally recognized consultant to nonprofit organizations who grew up in Rockland and now lives in Spruce Head. He currently serves as board chairman of the Island Institute and as a board member of several other organizations, including the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education.