Maine’s General Stores: Where Tradition Thrives (and Retail Giants Don’t)

In their heyday, general stores provided a little bit of everything in towns across Maine. Now, though, many of those old establishments have fallen by the wayside. Photographers Dave Waddell and Tristan Spinski set out looking for ones still living up to the general idea.

Owls Head General Store
Photo by Dave Waddell
By Jesse Ellison
From our November 2023 issue

Stop into Owls Head General Store and start asking around about what it was like during the several years the place was closed. “Depressing” is the word that most people come up with. The store shut down in 2017, after nearly a century of serving the small midcoast town. The exceedingly messy Seven Napkin Burger had fans far beyond town lines — Food Network called it the best burger in Maine — but even that couldn’t keep the business afloat. The owners tried to sell, but nobody wanted to buy.

Many general stores across the state have suffered similar fates. Just this summer, the owner of Merrill & Hinckley, a Blue Hill mainstay since the 19th century, announced he was calling it quits, saying there was simply no way to do enough volume to cover expenses. Six months earlier, the owner of the Freedom General Store shut her doors, saying much the same. The intrusion of big-box stores, the proliferation of chain convenience marts, and the rise of Amazon Prime have all exacerbated a trend that began decades earlier with the economic decline of once-thriving mill towns, working waterfronts, and agricultural communities. Some general stores have turned into chefy restaurants, upscale markets, or gift shops, often retaining the “general store” moniker, but only as a vestige (which is no knock against them — much better a gift shop than nothing at all). 

Gordon Berry, left, and his son, Brandon Berry, help a customer at Berry’s General Store in West Forks. Photo by Tristan Spinski

Nowadays, true general stores seem to do best when they’re far from shopping plazas and discount retailers, so Down East staff photographer Dave Waddell and contributing photographer Tristan Spinski hit the road (and the water) to see what keeps these far-flung holdouts ticking. The stores all of course have some staple groceries and probably Advil and Tylenol. The deli counter likely serves up a pretty good Italian. Maybe a couple of old gas pumps sit out front. But a couple of things really define general stores. One is the wide range of what’s on the shelves — even if you don’t know whether they have what you need, you know they certainly might. And their stock is keenly attuned to local particulars: at the Otis General Store, a whole wall of tackle for fishermen going after pickerel and perch on Graham Lake; at Berry’s General Store, in West Forks, snowmobile belts for sledders stopping along the 4,000-mile Interconnected Trail System; at Northstar Variety, in New Sweden, gear for hunters venturing into Aroostook County’s woods. 

The other thing is that general stores are rooted in their communities, which is especially evident on Isle au Haut, with its permanent population of fewer than 100 people. There, the Island Store is run on a cooperative model, jointly owned and operated by a mix of seasonal and year-round residents. Without it, and given limited ferry service, living on the island would be nearly untenable for most. For good reason, people tend to feel passionately about their general stores, which are somewhere to shop, sure, but also somewhere to put out a donation jar for a neighbor struggling with medical bills or to bump into a familiar face, pull up a chair, and gab about local goings-on.

Three years after Owls Head General Store closed, a 26-year-old, Maya Sousa, set her sights on reviving it. With a loan from her family, she bought the store. When she went to a town meeting for official approval to reopen, she grew nervous as the select board grilled another business applicant. “I was sitting there like, oh my gosh, are they gonna say no?” she recalls. “And I stand up and say, ‘I want to reopen the general store,’ and they were all like, ‘Oh my god, we’re so happy!’”

One recent afternoon, Sousa was sitting at a table, on a break from her spot on the kitchen line, where she spends at least half of her 80-hour work week making sandwiches and pizzas. A customer stopped to chat. “This is a general store, and it’s also a community center — the happening thing to do is go down to the general store and the post office on a Saturday morning,” he said. “When the store was closed . . . pffft. The town was just dead. We thank Maya every day.” 

Gratitude only gets her so far, though, and Sousa recalled a period last winter when she was contemplating selling her car in order to make payroll. Then, she had the idea to offer Seven Napkin Burgers for the discounted price of $7 every Wednesday. Suddenly, people were driving from 25 or 30 minutes away just for lunch, and they were buying up chips, soda, beer, and other odds and ends. 

At the Owls Head store, odds and ends — everything from extension cords to mixing spoons to bug swatters — reside under a sign that reads “Would You Happen to Have . . ?” The shelves are densely packed and loosely organized. “People come in and say, ‘Would you happen to have a needle to fill a flat tire?’ And believe it or not, we do,” Sousa says. “It’s important to me that we have all of that. That is what a general store should be.”

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Photos by Tristan Spinski

Northstar Variety

At Northstar Variety, find the fishing tackle beneath a display of taxidermy. Sara Anderson (bottom left) and her husband, Dave, have owned the store for 25 years. In a part of Aroostook County where general stores were once plentiful, Northstar is now one of only two along Route 161 between New Sweden and Fort Kent, a 35-mile stretch. Dave is descended from New Sweden’s original settlers. 204 New Sweden Rd., New Sweden. 207-896-3239

Photos by Dave Waddell

Owls Head General Store

In addition to its “Would You Happen to Have . . ?” shelves, Owls Head General also has a “Wicked Tiny Drugstore.” Owner Maya Sousa (top left) says about half her business comes from retail, half from food. Earlier this year, readers of this magazine voted her store’s aptly named Seven Napkin Burger the best in the state. Yes, it comes with seven napkins, and Sousa says she has gotten so used to the feel of grabbing seven off a stack that she doesn’t even have to count them anymore. 2 South Shore Dr., Owls Head. 207-466-9046.

Photos by Tristan Spinski

Berry’s General Store

“Our regulars are people I see every day of my life,” says Brandon Berry, whose grandfather opened the store in 1963. “If one passes away, it’s like a piece of the puzzle is missing. If the guy up the street who comes every morning at 6:10 hasn’t shown up by 6:20, we call him.” Bottom right: Brandon with his wife, Jillian, his mom, Carol, and his dad, Gordon. “Just like anyone who owns their own business, you’re married to it, all day every day,” he says. “But I work with my parents. That’s really special.” 2944 Rte. 201, West Forks.

Photos by Tristan Spinski

The Island Store

Isle au Haut’s general store switched from private ownership to a co-op model to keep from closing. Customers pay a one-time membership fee of $10 and are encouraged to help out around the shop. Michael Delchamp (top left) manages the store. Rita MacWilliam (bottom left) is a store clerk and board member, and her dog, Max (bottom center), often greets customers at the door. 3 Main St., Isle au Haut. 207-335-5211.

Photos by Dave Waddell

Otis General Store

“We have picnic tables outside, and people will come and literally spend all day here,” says Sierra Bishop (left, at the register), who runs the Otis store. “They sit and visit and drink their coffee, come in and get lunch, and go back out and sit and visit.” One of her nephews works as a cashier, one in the kitchen. “My niece is eight,” Bishop says, “and she tells me all the time she’s going to work in the store when she’s older.” 171 Otis Rd., Otis. 207-537-5000.

the view from Big Moose Mountain on the cover of Down East's February 2024 issue

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