As Father’s Day approaches, I am thinking about Wilson’s Dollar Stores in Winthrop, where my dad started working as a clerk and worked his way up to part-owner. This was in the days of the five-and-dime stores. Yes, you could buy things for a nickel!
Wilson’s sold everything from shoes and hardware to candy, toys, and more, growing 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.
I grew up working at Wilson’s and always assumed that would be my career. I especially loved cooking the peanuts and cashews — until they figured out I was eating all the profits. But it is the customers I remember best. This was an era when service was more than a slogan.
My life took a different path, partly because the large department stores took over the market. They are all so impersonal. The clerks don’t know me, and the programmed response, “Thank you for shopping at …” just isn’t the same. To this day, I am so proud of Reny’s for surviving and prospering. If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.
Even the large department stores that drove our smaller stores out of business are long gone. Remember W.T. Grants? Woolworth’s? When the big malls took over the marketplace, and Walmart took over the country, we abandoned our downtowns and drove to the cities to shop. Growing up, I have to say, everything we needed could be purchased in Winthrop. We rarely went to Augusta or Lewiston.
So I took a little pleasure in the recent headline: “As online shopping magnifies, outlook dims for mall stores.” AP business writers reported, “Online shopping is reaching such a critical mass with American households that many of the icons of the traditional mall — from Macy’s to The Gap to J.C. Penney — face an increasingly uncertain future.” Looks like they may be going the way of Wilson’s and Woolworth’s.
According to the news story, the main beneficiaries of our increased spending recently have been Amazon, eBay and other internet behemoths. “Online is cannibalizing the store business,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group.
And online shoppers are focused on price, shrinking the profit margins at many mall stores.
“Back in 2000,” reported the AP writers, “for every dollar spent at physical stores, just 30 cents were spent online and at mail-order houses, according to government figures. Now the online category makes up nearly 70 cents for every dollar spent at general merchandise stores.” Cohen predicted, “This is a cultural shift from the younger generation that is only going to carry forward.”
You can see empty mall stores right here in Maine. But you won’t see Wilson’s in Winthrop. The entire block that included several stores with the owners names on them were torn down. Gone, but not forgotten, at least by me.
All of this had a tremendously negative impact on our downtowns. I encourage you to get over to the State House to see a new Art in the Capitol exhibit on the ground and second floors, sponsored by the Maine Arts Commission. The exhibit features the work of photographer and digital printer Heath Paley, with 19 images of downtowns.
Titled, “Downtown, Patterns of Life in Maine’s Villages, Towns and Cities,” each portrait features a combination of dozens of photographs of downtowns all across Maine. Some of the photos are sad — empty mills and stores. Others are inspiring, like Mogadishu Store on Lewiston’s Lisbon Street and Rockland’s busy, art-filled Main Street.
Of course, Paley’s work doesn’t take us back to the days of Wilson’s, but it is worth seeing, because even today’s downtowns face significant challenges, including online shopping.
My book, “A Life Lived Outdoors,” includes a column titled, “A Lifelong Romance with Retail.” I wrote it right after Senter’s Department Store in Brunswick closed after 83 years. “The local five-and-dime is dead,” I wrote, “buried by the automobile and discount mart. We’ll drive to the new Augusta mall, passing empty stores in our own towns, cursing the lack of service and the congestion at the mall, forgetting our role in the murder of Senter’s, Wilson’s, and other retail stores.”
Hard to imagine today, but someday, someone may write a similar column about Walmart and our huge shopping malls. But I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that Reny’s will still be here. At least, I sure hope so.