You can buy a quart of milk anywhere, but it comes with a neighborhood only at the general store.
By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Jarrod McCabe
You’ll find the wine next to the worms at the Stow Corner Store. That’s not an accommodation to the store’s small size. “It’s so the guys will remember to buy a bottle for the missus,” owner Maureen Eastman reveals with a laugh.
A must-stop for hikers and campers heading into the Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness, Stow Corner Store (590 Stow Rd., Stow; 207-697-2255) is better known for killer sandwiches than worms, but it’s the wrigglers that mark this shop as a genuine general store — you’ll never find anything so earthy and alive at a cinder-block convenience store.
Nor will you find regulars like the retired farmers who linger over coffee at the community table, talking weather and politics and whether the world really is going to hell in a handbasket this time. This is exactly the spirit Eastman had in mind when she revived the 113-year-old store in 2010. Shuttered for five years, the Corner Store had been sorely missed in rural Stow, which has no library, no church, not even a post office. “I wanted to bring back that community connection — a shop where people could come in and have a cup of coffee with their neighbor,” Eastman says.
Anchors of Maine’s small towns since the 19th century, village stores have traditionally stocked everything from emergency candles to cornflakes — everyday goods that can’t wait until your next trip to the nearest market town. Many have a few tables where folks shoot the breeze, usually in the morning, when the coffee is fresh and the doughnuts are warm. Who’s off to college, who had a baby, who ordered the big fancy yacht that’s making the boatyard workers smile — this is the commerce of the village store. And when a neighbor is struggling to pay medical bills, a jar on a checkout counter is where the fundraising begins.
That’s the beauty of general stores: each one is unique, a reflection of its neighborhood. In the age of sterile, one-size-fits-all convenience stores and big boxes, the village store is a comforting anachronism even as it meets contemporary needs and wants.
Consider Hussey’s General Store (510 Ridge Rd., Windsor; 207-445-2511), whose “Guns – Wedding Gowns – Cold Beer” sign draws hundreds of selfie seekers every year. Founded in 1923 and still owned by the Hussey family, Hussey’s may well be Maine’s longest continuously running general store, as well as the one that hews most closely to the tradition of a retailer offering a broad selection of merchandise. “Guns – Wedding Gowns – Cold Beer” is not just a clever slogan; it’s the truth. Hussey’s sells all those things (some 200 wedding gowns a year, in case you’re wondering) and more. It thrives in the age of Walmart (the nearest one is just 20 minutes away, in Augusta) by offering goods that are hard to find in generica — things like cast-iron cookware, bean pots, and the parts for old-model camping lanterns.
“We’ve had to adapt to modern technologies, of course,” says Kristen Ballantyne, the great-granddaughter of founder Harland Hussey. “We’ve updated systems like our cash registers, but many of our tables are the same counters that my grandparents used to display goods. We mesh the worlds together — we’re modern with the feel of the old — and our customers appreciate that. It’s a little social hub.”
Another long-running institution, 58-year-old Day’s Store (182 Main St., Belgrade Lakes; 207-495-2205), benefits from its perch on the sliver of land separating Great and Long ponds: how can you not stop there? The only store for miles, Day’s stocks everything from freshly baked doughnuts and whoopie pies to milfoil stickers, fishing licenses, and yes, worms. In late spring, locals take a seat on the front porch and welcome returning cottagers stopping in to stock their kitchens. As the days grow long and steamy, the retirees arrive with their lawn chairs and stake out a spot by the lake, where they while away the hours until the sun sets and the loons call. On Sundays, third-generation owner Diane Oliver (or one of her employees) dutifully writes the names of longtime customers on two-dozen or so New York Times, a decades-old reservation ritual that persists even though there are always plenty of newspapers on hand.
The last several decades were hard on Maine’s general stores. Many closed as traditional rural livelihoods evaporated and people moved away. Meanwhile, supermarkets, big boxes, and convenience stores spread like kudzu, exacting their own toll. Recently, though, the village store has been making a comeback. Inspired by the locavore movement and foodie culture, some, like Owls Head General Store (2 South Shore Dr., Owls Head; 207-596-6038), have been very nearly reinvented as cafés, but they retain just enough of a retail operation that an informal atmosphere prevails.
“We realized that people were coming here for one reason: the Seven Napkin Burger,” says owner Rob Craig, extolling the burger that has been touted the best in Maine by this magazine and Food Network, among others. “We used to stock some groceries, but they didn’t sell, so we took out most of the shelves and added dining tables. We have the penny-candy jars, and the moms and dads who bought candy here when they were little now come in with their own kids. It’s an important part of the town: people gather their mail at the post office next door, then they come in here to get the paper and coffee and to talk.”
A sense of purpose distinguishes today’s general-store owners from their predecessors: many view creating community as part of their mission, not merely the happy byproduct of their enterprise. At Bessie’s Farm Goods (33 Litchfield Rd., Freeport; 207-865-9840), it’s the whole point. “We wanted to have a place where local people could have coffee and hang out and share stories about what’s going on in town,” Deede Montgomery says. “We don’t care if they buy anything. We want it to be a welcoming place.”
Montgomery and her best friend, Kathy Heye, built Bessie’s from scratch seven years ago on Heye’s farm, which is tucked on a quiet road a few miles from downtown Freeport. They’ve outfitted the store with sofas, rocking chairs, and spinning wheels, and every morning they serve coffee and freshly baked goodies, like breads, muffins, brownies, and crumbles. Area craftspeople display and sell their handmade sweaters, pottery, and other goods, and Montgomery and Heye sell their home-grown produce (garlic is their specialty) and take-home meals, like hearty soups and grain salads. Retired teachers with grown children, Montgomery and Heye say they are simply enjoying the freedom that has come at this stage in their lives. “It’s allowed us to do exactly what we wanted and to have a generous spirit,” Montgomery says. “We love people.”
Sam Coggeshall likewise had community in mind in 2008 when he bought the shuttered New Gloucester Village Store (405 Intervale Rd., New Gloucester; 207-926-4224). “I was hoping to slow down traffic through the village,” he says. He laughs, but he’s serious: an icon of Maine rural life thanks to Humpty Dumpty Snack Foods television commercials shot there in the 1990s, the store faltered not long after the post office closed, leaving drivers with little reason to stop. “It wasn’t a village anymore,” Coggeshall says.
Coggeshall installed a wood-fired brick oven and began baking creative pizzas, breads, and from-scratch take-home meals like lasagna and shepherd’s pie. He opened at 6, serving hearty scrambles and omelets and a to-die-for corned beef hash. He stocked the shelves with craft beers and wines. Though the store lost money its first two years — “it takes time for people to change their habits,” Coggeshall learned — these days it’s rarely empty. “People love the atmosphere,” Coggeshall says. “I feel good about that. It’s helped create a more healthy village. Now the town is even installing sidewalks.”
Owning a general store is a little like running a farm: The workdays are many and long, and there’s no such thing as weekends. That’s all the more true when you live upstairs, as Liz Evans and her two young children do. “I was trying to take a shower the other day,” relates Evans, who is celebrating her 10th anniversary as the owner of the East Boothbay General Store (255 Ocean Point Rd., East Boothbay; 207-633-7800). “There I was, with a towel wrapped around me, and every time I tried to step in the tub, I got a call. I live in a fishbowl, but it’s worth it.”
A former East Boothbay summer kid, Evans re-opened the store 10 years ago after a career as a caterer, restaurant cook, and yacht chef. She has stocked it with gourmet foods, Maine authors’ books, and Maine-made crafts. Customers come for her spin on traditional village-store fare — things like Cuban sandwiches made with roasted pork, blueberry and gorgonzola pizza, and, on weekends only, cardamom and sugar doughnuts. “I’ve worked in restaurants before and it didn’t mean as much to me as this — the opportunity to see the faces of the people I’m feeding,” Evans says. “It makes it personal.”
I’ve worked in restaurants before and it didn’t mean as much to me as this — the opportunity to see the faces of the people I’m feeding. It makes it personal.
— Liz Evans (above, standing), East Boothbay General Store
What she didn’t expect was the nourishment she’d get in return. Four years ago, Evans explains, she was pregnant with her second child and in the midst of a painful divorce. “The solidarity and strength that the community gave me was amazing,” she says. “For all the tumult of the last few years, it’s remarkable to be in a place where I can say I can’t imagine something else I’d rather do.”