ALBION — After 86 years of operation by three generations of Keays, community fixture H.L. Keay & Son general store is probably closing this week, according to the grandchildren of the founder.
Store Manager Kevin Keay said that the store, which he co-owns with siblings Daryl Keay, Jerry Keay and Lisa Fortin, was hurt by the flagging economy and increased competition from larger national chain competitors.
“We just decided we’d had enough of running it and wanted to get done,” he said. “Business weren’t that good.”
Empty shelves are becoming more common in the store, which has been selling off its stock since the new year began.
“We’re still open this week,” Kevin Keay said Wednesday. “I don’t know whether we’ll be open next week. Most of the groceries are all gone. We have some hardware and groceries left.”
Keay said that the store doesn’t match the expectations of young people, who are more likely to patronize Walmart or Hannaford for their shopping needs.
“They don’t like the smaller stores, most of them, I guess,” he said. “The old people in town like the small country stores.”
Keay said that the family plans to list the store with a real estate agent, Prudential Northeast Properties, on Monday.
The store still serves many regular customers in the community who have come to rely on it for their groceries, meat and other assorted items, Keay said.
“Most of them are sorry to see us go,” Keay said. “I hope somebody’s going to buy it and keep it the same.”
Customers would have to otherwise travel to Unity, South China or Waterville to find some items, he said.
For many long-time residents of the community, the Keay store is a place where you can get anything — cuts of meat and lumber, tobacco and drain plugs as well as books, milk, grain, shovels, boots, cough medicine, guns, lawnmowers, hunting supplies, a hot cup of coffee and, perhaps most importantly, local gossip.
“You could go in there maybe to get a box of doughnuts or something and you always chit-chatted with them,” Albion resident Charlene Quimby, who turns 70 this week, said. “If somebody was in the hospital, you might ask how they were doing because they always seemed to know, from people coming and going.”
It also provided services. It was a place where farm employees could cash their checks and hunters could weigh their deer.
Quimby said that she’s been going to the Keay store since she first moved to Albion at the age of 18. During the past 51 years, she has seen the store pass down from founder Harold Keay and his wife, Lena, to their son, Crosby, in the 1980s, to his four grandchildren several years ago.
“I am sad to see it go,” she said. “It was an icon of the area.”
Quimby said that sometimes, Harold Keay, who founded the store in August 1927 and ran it until his death in his 80s in 1982, would extend credit to families who were going through a tough time.
Ask a few who knew him what he was like and the answers are strikingly similar.
“Harold and Lena worked very, very hard to get it where it was,” Quimby said.
“He used to open up at five in the morning and he used to close it at 9 o’clock at night,” Paul McFarland, who worked for Keay for 48 years, said. “He was working in the store the day before he died.”
“He was a hard worker and he wanted everybody to work just as hard as he did,” grandson Kevin Keay said.
The work ethic that Harold Keay was known for helped him to build the store from its humble beginnings as a tiny 30-foot-long grocery. Several times over the decades, he made additions to the building and expanded his offerings. He added hardware and grain in the 1950s, and lumber and building supplies in the 1970s.
Today, it has 8,000 square feet of retail space and another 8,000 square feet in the warehouse, according to Kevin Keay.
Mary Lee Rounds, chairwoman of Albion’s Board of Selectmen, said that the loss of the store will now require those who fresh vegetables or meat to drive out of town.
“It’s a big loss to the community,” she said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287