FAIRFIELD — Main Street bears scant resemblance to the bustling scene that greeted Harold and Naj Joseph when they opened a clothing store here in 1945 shortly after Harold returned from the war.

They had taken over for Harold’s father, Abraham, a Lebanese immigrant who relocated the store to Fairfield in 1928 after years in Waterville. Joseph’s still bears the word clothing in its official name but it long ago became known as the place in central Maine to shop for sporting goods.

Today, Main St. is marked by vacant and boarded-up storefronts, a sign of the times for businesses that have been crowded out by big box stores, on-line competition or just decided to relocate to shopping malls.

“The small towns are losing their identity,” Connie Winship said.

Winship and her husband Ray were among dozens of customers and well-wishers who turned out Saturday for what was officially billed as a retirement party for Harold, who will turn 90 in October, and Naj, 86. It was also a retirement for their daughter Paula, who has managed the store the past several years with her husband Jon Eustis. Most of all, though, it was the end of an era.

The store, actually two buildings since the Josephs bought out the adjacent Western Auto store many years ago, will close its doors within a couple of weeks. Longtime employee David Winkin, along with Messalonskee High School hockey coach Mike Latendresse, will move the business to the Medical Arts Building on Kennedy Memorial Drive In Waterville. Winkin doesn’t anticipate many changes.

“Generally, no,” Winkin said. “We may carry a few less sneakers, but we’re going to try to keep cleats. Golf will be a big part of it, hockey, baseball.”

The new store will be called Joseph’s Sporting Goods and undoubtedly be larger, brighter and perhaps a little more organized. But charm is much more elusive and difficult to reproduce, and Joseph’s had it in spades, from the creaky wood floor to the exposed fluorescent lighting and cluttered shelves.

There was a surprise around every corner — gloves here, skates there, tennis rackets in rows, jackets, balls, bats, field hockey sticks and a whole room devoted to golf, a passion of Harold’s for years. While many people shared coffee, donuts and memories Saturday morning, others just wandered in looking for bargains, oblivious to the bittersweet celebration around them.

“We bought our track equipment here, because it was really the only place around where you could buy sporting goods,” said Ray Wiship, a former Lawrence High School teacher and coach. “Javelins and vaulting poles. It’s unique.”

Physical surroundings aside, it’s the personal touch that separated Joseph’s from big box stores. The family wasn’t going anywhere.

“I’m 65,” Paula said. “When I was born my mother put me in a crate, I’m not kidding you, padded it, and brought me to work. I’ve been here all my life.”

Harold and Naj still work every Monday and some Saturdays to give Jon and Paula a break. Harold wanders in four or five days a week just to stay busy and shoot the breeze. When he doesn’t recall customers by their first names he calls them “pro,” and he’s still ready to match or better a deal offered by a big box competitor. Those that couldn’t pay up front or pay at all, never went without.

Paula had pages of testimonials from former customers around the state and the country who couldn’t make it Saturday but remembered the attention and kindness they received at Joseph’s. A recently retired coach showed up midweek, Paula said, to thank Harold for his generosity when the coach was a kid.

He wanted to play sports but couldn’t afford the equipment. Harold said that was no problem but the kid had a paper route and insisted he’d pay.

“So my dad charged him five cents a week,” Paula said.

The family atmosphere extended to the staff, many of whom have been employed there for years. Susan Suttie has worked on and off at the store for 42 years and still works every Monday with Harold and Naj.

“I was crying first thing this morning,” she said. “I’m happy for them but sad because my kids grew up here.”

Suttie’s three children never went without when it came to sports equipment but neither did she when it came to watching them.

“All three of my children played three sports and I never missed a game,” Suttie said. “You don’t miss your children’s games when you work here.”

There are grandkids to visit — Harold and Naj have a great granddaughter too — and places to see as retirement looms. Many of the staff will work at the new store. And there’s certainly a chance Harold will wander in from time to time. But Mom and Pop and daughter and son-in-law won’t be there every day. And neither will the store that central Maine kids and adults thought of as a second home.

“I’ve been so blessed,” Paula said. “How many people can work with their folks, work with their husband and be happy. I’m thankful every day.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

[email protected]

 

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