AUGUSTA — The end of the year brings an end to a storied downtown Augusta business, when Stacy’s Hallmark on Water Street closes its doors.

Owner Stacy Gervais and her father, store founder Richard Cummings, plan to close the store on Dec. 31, just a couple of months shy of its 43rd anniversary.

Business has been declining over the last decade for a variety of reasons, a candid Gervais said Monday morning before the news was widely known.

“The other side is my dad is 78, and he deserves to retire,” she said.

For customers like Dona Garippa, who has lived in and around Augusta for years and visited twice a year when she lived out of state, Stacy’s has been the place she could go to shop for cards and gifts. She likes the quality of the Hallmark cards, and it’s a great place to shop for gifts.

“The clothes and the jewelry are beautiful,” Garippa said. “They are items you can’t get elsewhere.”

But beyond the inventory, Garippa said Gervais excels at customer service.

“Stacy and her family have been a big influence in Augusta,” she said. “They are community-oriented and have given a lot. They will be greatly missed.”

The new year will usher in a new opportunity for Gervais and for the building with its well-maintained Art Deco sign and yellow brick facade.

Tobias Parkhurst, who owns other property downtown, is buying the building. The closing is scheduled for Jan. 12, and he’s looking for tenants.

A LONG HISTORY

In 1973, Cummings had been a salesman on the road in Maine for Hallmark, based in Kansas City, Missouri, for more than a decade. He happened to notice Mansur Photography on Water Street was closing and decided it was time to get off the road and open a store. That’s how many Hallmark stores started.

After six years there, the building just down the block at 243 Water St. was listed for sale. Built in 1932 by the Kresge chain of stores, it housed a Jupiter Discount Store, the bargain basement arm of the retail chain. Cummings bought it and remodeled.

“We had a showplace,” he said.

For her part, Gervais said being the Stacy of Stacy’s wasn’t always easy. In the fifth grade, she said, she insisted everyone call her Lynn instead to break the connection with the store.

“You pay a heavy price for having a store named after you,” she said. But she has fond memories of having fun in and around the store and riding the dumb waiter up and down with her best friend.

In those years, Cummings didn’t consider what Water Street might look like more than three decades later. One by one, the stores that made up the fabric of downtown retail either closed or moved to other locations in the city — five and dime stores, jewelers, pharmacies, and clothing and shoe stores, including Lamey-Wellehan, which moved to Western Avenue in 2006.

The advent of email and e-cards wasn’t even on the horizon.

“I didn’t look that far ahead,” he said. “I wouldn’t have seen how things could change.”

When Gervais took over the shop in 1998, she continued in her father’s footsteps. In the last few years, she added the clothing boutique, and that’s done well, but outside forces have made doing business hard, she said.

Last winter was particularly tough with chronic bad weather.

“I struggled with shoveling my sidewalk, but that does me no good if no one is making sure the storm drains are clear,” she said, adding that she lost business from customers who tried to get to the store but couldn’t because access to the crosswalks wasn’t cleared.

“I lost a lot of faith last year,” she said.

She has also been frustrated by what she considers a lack of effort on the part of city officials to promote downtown Augusta, even as she praises the city councilors who have done what they can to help out.

Competition from a second Hallmark store at the Marketplace at Augusta hasn’t helped either.

It weighs on her that the decision to close the store fell during her time at the helm.

“I feel responsible that we finally packed it in now,” she said.

Customers like Garippa who stopped by during November found the store closed with a notice on the door. A burst pipe and the resulting water damage kept the doors closed.

Gervais said that didn’t affect the decision to close the store — it had already been made.

It’s ironic that only in the past year she has felt a kinship with fellow downtown merchants through the Downtown EXPO and events they have coordinated.

Ross Cunningham, president of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, said it is sad to see a longtime business close. But having a new building owner who is invested in the community will be good for the downtown area.

“Investors who are concerned with more than the bottom line and with our community are excellent,” he said.

CHANGING TIMES

The dynamics of downtown real estate have flipped.

In the early part of the last century, a building’s value was in the street-level retail space. Any office or apartment rentals upstairs were gravy.

In the decades since, as retail has followed the automobile out of city centers and to the suburban edges, downtown space has not been as sought after. In city after city, the mainstays of local department stores, specialty shops and services have given way to national chains or bigger competitors. In some cases, business owners have retired with no one to sell or give the business to.

That leaves an inventory of space and a host of possibilities.

For Parkhurst and other developers with interests in downtown Augusta, the main possibility is housing, and that has turned the traditional value equation on its head. Now the upper floors are valued and in demand. And that, Parkhurst said, allows the retail space to be leased for a reasonable rate, because it’s not carrying the burden of paying for the rest of the building.

“Augusta has a housing crisis at all levels,” he said. “The housing stock is quite old.”

In the Stacy’s property he sees a chance to keep an iconic downtown building occupied. “Dick and Stacy have done a phenomenal job restoring it. It’s in the best shape of any of the downtown buildings,” he said.

The upper floor has two apartments, which Parkhurst plans to rent. He anticipates splitting the street-level retail space in two, with one half slated for a restaurant and the other for specialized retail.

“Downtown redevelopment is not an event; it’s a process,” he said. “The question is, can you make it happen? Do you want to be a weatherman or do you want to make it rain?”

Even with the investment made by Augusta developers like Guerrette Properties, Parkhurst, and his father Richard, said downtown Augusta is on the edge of being able to attract a large developer to invest. In October, Richard Parkhurst purchased the building at 275-287 Water St. when an out-of-state owner let it fall into disrepair, forcing the temporary closure of three downtown businesses. Gagliano’s Italian Bistro closed for good, while Patricia Buck Bridal and Forbidden Fruit have since reopened.

“Let’s hope the economic development plan for downtown Augusta is not to have the Parkhursts own everything,” Tobias Parkhurst said.

A CHANGE OF SCENERY

Cummings, who spends winters in Florida and works at Stacy’s when he’s in Maine the rest of the year, will live year-round in Florida. He said a number of his friends are snowbirds, traveling north for the summer. But more and more of them are staying put in Florida, and he would like to, too.

Gervais said she plans to open a boutique — like her current boutique it will be named The Looke, after her mother’s maiden name — and champagne bar in the Fort Myers area. It will be a fun place to shop and spend some time. She thinks she may have it open by April.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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