Best Small-Town Downtowns: Norway

Western Maine's best downtown threads the needle between hip and homey.

Downtown Norway, Maine
By Jesse Ellison
Photographed by Cait Bourgault

Main Streets with moxie! In our July 2021 issue, we took a look at six of our favorite downtowns from all across the state — and the businesses, buildings, and boosters that make them great. Read up on more of Maine’s best small-town downtowns and start planning your next road trip.

Rest for the Weary

Norway's unassuming Weary Club
Norway’s unassuming Weary Club. Photo from Flickr user jilmw.

Downtown Norway is easy to whiz by on busy Route 26, but detouring down Main Street is a fine way to slow down and relax a while — as it has been for quite some time. Norway’s Weary Club started in the 1920s as a refuge for local men to play cards, smoke, and shoot the breeze. Fred Sanborn, longtime publisher of the Norway Advertiser-Democrat, coined the group’s slogan: “Makers and Dealers in Cedar Shavings, Social Gossip, Political Wisdom, and Yankee Philosophy.” In early years, membership depended on one’s ability to whittle a shaving light enough to float. The club has resided in its current location — a small, white Greek Revival building made of lumber salvaged from a local tavern — since 1927. These days, the club is open to anyone who’s game for a good chat, but it’s remained true to its original principles: no gambling, booze, or — the most wearisome of all — phones. And though whittling is no longer practiced so much, there’s a stockpile of cedar in the basement just in case. 385 Main St.

Left: Norway’s First Universalist Church, built in 1848. Right: A stroll past Tribune Books.

Gelato with a Side of Pasta

Clockwise from top left: Cafe Nomad has great coffee and a commitment to local sourcing; behind the line at Dolce Amici; lunch, beers, and fresh air in the Norway Brewing Company beer garden.

On one end of Main Street sits Cafe Nomad (450 Main St.; 207-739-2249), a local institution, beloved not only for its (vegan-friendly) food but also its legendarily kind customer service and commitment to the community. The bread is from Borealis, in Wells, the coffee is from Carrabassett Coffee Company, in Kingfield, and the eggs are from a farm called Bumpus, in neighboring Paris. Mismatched furniture, a rotating selection of local art, and windows overlooking Pennesseewassee Stream make it the sort of place you could spend all day pecking away at your laptop, and its arrival in town in 2007 marked the beginning of a slow, steady food renaissance. Norway Brewing Company (237 Main St.; 207-739-2126) sits at the other end of Main Street, a family-friendly taproom and beer garden (one recent afternoon found it hosting a kids’ birthday party) that does dinners and weekend brunches. Like Nomad, the brewery goes all-in on local ingredients in its kitchen. The latest arrival downtown, and the most unusual concept, is Dolce Amici (427 Main St.; 207-743-3900), a gelato shop and cocktail bar that also serves pasta and paninis. Happy hour starts at 3 p.m., with $5 cocktails.

Second Act for the Opera House

Norway’s revitalized Opera House.
Norway’s revitalized Opera House.

The most prominent building in Norway’s historic district is the massive red-brick opera house. In 2003, after a private owner (rumored to be from Massachusetts) let it fall into disrepair, Maine Preservation listed the building as one of the state’s “most endangered historic properties.” Soon after, the town of Norway acquired the building through eminent domain and started an extensive restoration. Today, five retail spaces on the ground floor anchor the downtown shopping scene. Fiber & Vine (402 Main St.; 207-739-2664) is a yarn and wine shop so popular that many a Portlander treks up for the extensive selection of wool, fibers, tools, and notions (not to mention the wines). Brick & Mortar (400 Main St.; 207-744-2254), a home-goods store, stocks beautiful linens, kitchen tools, and, unexpectedly, violins. Handmade Maine (414 Main St.; 207-739-1173) sells an assortment of Maine-made ceramics, lotions, and other handcrafted goods. And the Raven Collections (406 Main St.; 207-744-2018) offers rocks, gems, minerals, and fossils from near and far. Next up for the opera house: restoring the upstairs hall to once more serve as an arts, performance, and community space.

That Old-Time Feeling

Clockwise from top left: Widdershins Antiques, selling not just antiques but “oddities and curiosities” of any vintage; the Tribune Books & Gifts opened in 2018; they’ve been cutting hair at Ed’s Barber Shop for 63 years.

Between Cafe Nomad and Ed’s Barber Shop (442 Main St.; 207-461-1277), a classic straight-razor kind of place that looks unchanged since the middle of the last century, is Food for Thought Vintage Books and Records (446 Main St.; 207-743-9488). On one recent trip to the Norway store, $12 scored a copy of Sargent Collier’s 1953 title Down East (no relation), a collection of photos, history, and observations about the Atlantic coastline from Camden into Canada. There’s a whole room stacked nearly to the ceiling with books of every genre, all priced at $2.50, and the vinyl selection runs from Bruce Springsteen to Bette Midler. Across the street and down a block is Widdershins Antiques (329 Main St.; 207-310-4105), another spot for treasure hunters, selling not just antiques but “oddities and curiosities” of any vintage. In the market for old wooden skis? A crystal ashtray? Random doorknobs? This is your spot.

Tall Trees

Walk from Norway’s downtown onto the wooded trails of Ordway Grove.

The 10-acre Ordway Grove buffers downtown from Pennesseewassee Lake. The lake is a popular draw for year-rounders and summer folk alike, and the grove is its quiet companion. Access is tucked down a side street, and a half-mile loop trail leads to some of the oldest eastern white pines in the entire Pine Tree State. The grove has been preserved since 1789, when it was acquired by Samuel Ames, Norway’s first settler. Now, it’s home to trees that soar some 150 feet high, with circumferences surpassing 10 feet. One pine is estimated at about 315 years old. The entrance, marked with a small wooden sign, is easily missed, but the trail is well maintained and opens onto lovely views from the shore of Pennesseewassee Lake. Just don’t forget to look up along the way.

Read up on more of our favorite downtowns from all across Maine.