Please sing along with me now: “All I want for Christmas is a real downtown, a real downtown, yes a real downtown. ”
The announcement that Stacy’s Hallmark on Water Street in Augusta is closing triggered a lot of great memories. I grew up in Winthrop, a town with a real downtown. My dad worked at Wilson’s Dollar Stores on Main Street, both sides of which were packed with locally owned stores, many of which carried the owner’s name, and the owners were in those stores, including Mr. Wilson.
In addition to Wilson’s, there was Bruneau’s Market, LaVallee photo, McNamara’s restaurant and bakery, Helen’s Fruit Store, Kunkel’s barber shop, Otto Weston’s hardware, and right around the corner, Audette’s hardware and not far from there, Maxim’s Grain.
Alas, only Audette’s is still in Winthrop, although years ago the store was moved to a shopping center. Throughout Maine, the local five-and-dime is dead, buried by the automobile, huge discount stores, and malls. We drive to the new Augusta mall, passing empty stores in our own towns, cursing the lack of service and congestion at the mall, forgetting our own role in the murder of Wilson’s and other downtown retail stores. Only Reny’s remains, and I am so happy for them.
I had a romance with retail from a very early age when I stared out in the business by counting inventory at Wilson’s where Dad worked his way up from clerk to part owner. Wilson’s was a five-and-dime with everything from shoes to hardware, candy, toys and more. Wilson’s grew from a single store in Winthrop, founded by my namesake George “Squanto” Wilson, into a chain of stores from Lincoln to Norway, including Auburn, Hallowell, Gardiner and Livermore Falls — all on Main Streets in real downtowns. I worked in all the stores at one time or another. It was an incredible education in what is now a bygone era.
Waterville and Augusta are working hard to restore their downtowns. In Waterville, the initiatives of Colby College, which has recently purchased several downtown buildings for restoration, is particularly impressive, as is the work of the Parkhurst family in downtown Augusta. We find it much easier to park and shop in downtown Waterville than downtown Augusta. And downtown Waterville also has a bunch of good restaurants, which constantly bring people into the city.
Downtown Augusta is going to need a lot of help to replace Stacy’s, Gaglianos and other long-lost shops and restaurants. And as far as downtown Winthrop is concerned, well, a lot of it is gone. The urban renewal project that left a hole where Wilson’s, Bruneau’s, Kunkel’s and LaVallee’s once stood on Main Street left an even bigger hole in my heart. The bulldozers and building movers removed my boyhood home where I cooked cashews, sorted work pants, stacked sneakers, swept floors and checked out customers.
Oh, the smell of those hot roasted cashews drove this growing youngster crazy. I’m sure I ate up all the profit on those. But it is the staff and customers I remember best. This was the era when service was more than a slogan. We waited on customers, served them with a smile and thanked them profusely when they made a purchase. The customer was always right. A lot of visiting went on at the cash register, and I developed a knack for ringing up sales while talking about last night’s basketball game.
Stacy Cummings Gervais said it well in her full-page farewell. “Stacy’s Hallmark has been more than just a gift shop to me; it has been my whole life. I was a little girl when Daddy opened in 1973, and I grew up wrapping presents, fixing cards and finally finding my personal retail voice with the creation of The Looke boutique…. I will miss everyone I have come to know by sight if not by name. Conversations with customers, both funny and bittersweet, over the search for just the right card or gift, have touched my heart and brought me tremendous happiness and fulfillment. I will take those memories with me and cherish them always.” I know just how Stacy feels.
Elizabeth Noyce, the benefactor of the Libra Foundation, focused a lot of her attention on downtown Portland, particularly the at-the-time rundown Congress Street, buying and restoring buildings and filling them with businesses. Don’t I wish she’d been able to extend that work to rural Maine. But I guess that is up to us.
Sing along with me: “All I want for Christmas is a real downtown, a real downtown, a real downtown.” And if we care about the future of our own downtowns, we need to start shopping and eating there.