When Brandon Berry steps into the boxing ring Thursday, he won’t just be fighting for the night’s light welterweight title.
He’ll be fighting for his family’s store, in danger of failing after three generations.
He’ll be fighting for West Forks Plantation, a northern Somerset County community of about 50, reeling from the stagnant economy of the last several years.
Berry, who’s won the two professional fights he’s been in, is part of the professional card of the Fight to Educate, a six-fight event Thursday in Manchester, N.H.’s Verizon Wireless Arena.
If the 25-year-old can win enough fights, he can earn enough money to prop up the store. The store props up the community, and the community props up Berry. It’s a cycle of struggle, faith, community and love.
That’s what Berry is fighting for.
The odds against him are enormous, but the people of West Forks have put their money and support behind him.
They say he can hit harder than a recession.
They need him to.
Berry, and his family’s store, are a critical part of the area’s effort to attract tourists. Everyone agrees that without tourists, it wouldn’t take long for the town — in an area that’s a mecca for snowmobilers, ATV riders, fishermen, hunters and white-water rafters — to disappear.
Outside Maine, Berry is unknown. But in his own small corner of the world, he’s a big name.
Berry’s General Store is the area’s sole source of bullets, beer, milk, mousetraps, cigarettes, shoelaces, groceries, gasoline and gossip. Berry knows family general stores are going out of style, but he’s not ready to give up on his family’s.
Inside the store, locals lounge in lawn chairs that are ostensibly for sale. Above their heads, dozens of deer antlers dangle from the ceiling and the walls are lined with hunting trophies. In one corner, a clothes rack holds a bunch of empty hangers and a handful of moose antlers with price tags on them.
Local workmen post their business cards on the wall — Foley’s Wood Floors, Adam Baker Well Drilling, Hamilton Sandblasting, Maysic Construction.
As people buy supplies, they circulate cards for those who are ill, announce community dinners, get gas and organize benefits.
Forest Hopkins, who stopped in recently to pick up a drink, is from Bingham, 25 miles down U.S. Route 201. But he’s familiar with Berry.
“Oh, the boxer,” he said. “I guess he’s been winning. Down in Bingham, we all know about that, down that way.”
Family business on the mat
Two weeks before the big fight, Berry’s father, Gordon, bearded and wearing a hunting cap, stood behind the store in a rough grassy area littered with pallets, broken freezers, propane tanks and shelving units — the store’s castoffs.
Gordon Berry is in his own fight, against the Great Recession, which began pummeling his store, and much of Maine’s tourism industry, in 2007.
“Back-to-back, three or four years of bad business, it’s put us right down on the floor,” he said.
But as he hitched a trailer to his truck, Berry said he wouldn’t give up quietly.
“I’m going down to get wood so I can bundle it up, sell it to the rafting companies,” he said. “I mow lawns, plow snow. You have to do three, four jobs just to keep things on an even keel.”
He works between 60 and 80 hours a week, coming in at 4 a.m. most days to make breakfast sandwiches. But it’s not enough. He’s cut wood on his land and sold it to keep the business solvent. In some cases, he’s sold the land itself.
This year, despite his best efforts, the store has struggled. When the freezer broke down, he couldn’t afford to replace it immediately, and so he stopped selling frozen food for a while. Another time, money was too tight to keep restocking the fuel tanks, and so he went without gas and diesel for months.
His son will inherit the store one day, he said, but not when it’s a financial drain.
If Brandon Berry defies the odds and succeeds in boxing, he could win enough money to save the store, but the father and son haven’t talked seriously about it.
Gordon Berry said it wouldn’t be fair to ask his son to prop up the store with money he’s earned.
“I don’t want him to have to do that,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
Yet Brandon, who works 50 or more hours at the store each week, said it’s also not fair for his father.
“I don’t want him to have to do it with what he’s earned,” he said. “He’s selling land.”
Gordon Berry tries not to get too excited about the prospect of his son’s success. “It’s a long shot,” he said.
Then, in the next breath, “It could happen. You don’t have to live in Las Vegas or Philadelphia.”
A town on the ropes
There may be more at stake for Berry than the family store.
Like boxing itself, West Forks is rugged and exhilarating, but a tough place to make a living.
It has no schools, no library, no churches. Instead, there is access to the Dead River, the Penobscot River, the Kennebec River. A chunk of the Appalachian Trail runs just south of town. There’s Moxie Falls, a 92-foot vertical waterfall, and Coburn Mountain, which at 3,750 feet boasts the highest groomed snowmobile trail in Maine.
The natural attractions bring in enough snowmobilers, ATV riders, kayakers, whitewater rafters, fishermen, hunters and hikers to allow a small army of guides, equipment rental agencies and vacation rental businesses to eke out a living.
The year-round population is about 50, but in the summer, the guides and other seasonal workers, many of whom live in tents in the woods, temporarily increase the population to about 400, according to Pamela Christopher, director of The Forks Area Chamber of Commerce and co-owner of nearby Sea Moxie Gore Outfitters.
Unemployment rates spike in the offseason, rarely falling below 10 percent in the years since the recession hit, according to the Maine Department of Labor. In December 2011, the unemployment rate was 27 percent.
If the economy continues to clobber Berry’s General Store and the local hospitality industry, many families would be devastated.
“There are tens of millions of dollars invested in this community,” Christopher said.
Business leaders in West Forks and the surrounding communities have been trying all the usual strategies to stay alive. In the hopes of attracting more tourists, the community expanded its trail system, applied for grants and pooled money to buy ads.
About 14 years ago, they founded The Forks Area Chamber of Commerce, which today includes 45 members from West Forks and other communities on the U.S. 201 corridor, like Bingham, Jackman and Greenville.
But, unlike most other small communities, West Forks is also pouring a portion of its meager resources into a longshot. Brandon Berry, whose boxing career has, so far, cost money.
His trainer, Skeet Wyman, who is also a lobsterman, doesn’t charge Berry to train in his gym, but it’s in Stockton Springs, in northern Waldo County. Berry drives about 700 miles in a thrice-weekly trip to the gym, which costs him about $600 a month in gas alone.
Berry also has no insurance, something that came into play when he suffered some rib contusions in Stockton Springs sparring in July. The friend driving him that day took him to Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, closer to home for Berry, to get fixed up. He’s covered during a fight, but all other medical expenses come out of Berry’s pocket.
At Berry’s General Store, a note taped to a plastic jug invites customers to donate their change to defray Berry’s training expenses.
Hoping for a brighter future, some buy lottery tickets, while others put their change into Berry’s collection jug. Some do both.
All day long, pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters drop into the jug with a clink, the sound of the community’s faith in its hometown hero.
The community supports Berry in other ways as well.
One of his financial sponsors is Three Rivers Whitewater, a rafting company. Co-owner Tony Rinaldi said he and his business partner are happy to support Berry because his success would reflect well on the area.
“What’s good for one is good for all of us,” he said.
Another business owner, Chuck Peabody of Crab Apple Whitewater rafting company, gives Berry a ride to the gym when he can. Others make small donations or buy Team Berry T-shirts.
Berry said the support would never come in a larger city like Portland, where no one knows him.
“It’s like a big family, is what it is,” he said.
Believing in a longshot
The community may need Berry’s General Store as much as Berry does himself.
In addition to being a cornerstone of the community, the store provides vital amenities to those who come to spend their money at area businesses.
The store is the only one within 25 miles that sells the kind of things the customers of the region’s rafting companies, wilderness guides and lodging owners need.
A snowmobiler or ATV rider, coming in on trails from Rangeley, for instance, would be disappointed to find there was no place to fill up the gas tank, Rinaldi said.
Berry may be a long shot, but the people of West Forks believe.
“He’ll do whatever it takes to get there,” Christopher said. “I think they truly believe that he can do what he set out to do and that’s why they support it. It’s an investment.”
Berry isn’t the cliche of the tough street kid. Clean-cut and soft-spoken, he was raised with the love and support of his family and neighbors. If he were taller, he might seem broad-shouldered, but at 5 feet, 5 inches and a little over 140 pounds, it can be easy to overlook the light welterweight’s strength.
It’s more apparent in the boxing ring. When he wears his trunks, Berry’s pale skin looks heavy and solid, like modeling clay on a frame of thick wire. During his fights, his upper body is a blur of activity, a flurry of jabbing, ducking and torso-swinging, as he looks for an opportunity to unload a knockout punch.
His technique is not perfect. When dancing around the ring, he doesn’t float like a butterfly, but trundles like a beetle. Berry admits he wasn’t born with boxing talent.
“If I make it, it isn’t going to be from natural ability,” he said. “It’s going to be blood, sweat and tears.”
He spent years in the amateur circuit at fights throughout New England before being accepted into professionally sanctioned matches.
He won both of his two professional fights, both times beating Bill Jones, of Berwick.
When the two met in May at Skowhegan Area High School, even the fight taking place was a long shot. It was the first professional boxing match in Maine since 2005. Professional boxing had been illegal in the state since 2007, when the board that regulated it dissolved. It’s now making it’s way back, but the May fight was fought under special emergency rules.
And Jones is not a boxer, but a mixed martial arts fighter.
Berry beat Jones with a technical knockout at the May fight. The two fought again in July after Jones asked for a rematch, and Berry knocked him out a minute and a half into the third round.
Still, odds against Berry earning a big payday are daunting.
The paying public is only interested in seeing undefeated contenders, the best of the best, which means that professional boxing is a game of enormous risk. Fighters must win almost every fight to advance their careers.
Berry estimates he has to build a streak of 20 or 25 consecutive wins before he can compete for purses of $25,000 or $50,000, and after that the prizes grow to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But not every boxer can win every match. For every victory, there is a defeat.
There is no sanctioned global list of active boxers, but BoxRec, an online database, ranks Berry 1,048 out of 1,550 active light welterweights in the world. That’s a long climb to the top.
Berry said he’s got the mindset, work ethic, trainer and support network to make it happen.
And few fighters have Berry’s motivation. He’s sick of the store serving as the economy’s punching bag, taking punishment but never dishing it out.
At this stage in Berry’s career, it’s hard for anyone to know whether he’s the real deal.
On Thursday, Berry will climb into the ring in Manchester and lead with his heart in front of thousands of spectators.
Berry said his odds are improved by the support of the people of West Forks, many of whom have traveled to see him trade blows with someone from away.
In the ring, he tries to focus on the fight. But, inevitably, he’ll hear someone he knows call out encouragement. Sometimes he’ll lock eyes with a friend in the crowd.
“That’s a spark,” he said. “I know damn well there were some fights I would have lost if I didn’t have people there supporting me.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287