WINTHROP — Businesses have come and gone on Main Street for the last half-century, but one constant has been the unimposing gift shop that Ann and Fred Carlton opened opposite the downtown mill complex on April 1, 1971: Foshay-Carlton Cards and Gifts. They originally ran the store with Ann’s parents, whose last name was Foshay, and until 2005, they also ran the Dairy Delight, an ice cream shop next door.

Only the vinyl-sided gift shop remains, and besides offering a few discounts, Ann and Fred have no great plans for marking its 45th anniversary. But the couple, who have been married for 56 years, still enjoy the day-to-day work of running Foshay-Carlton. They’ve been at it so long that they can speak of the nation’s changing retail landscape with a wisdom born of experience.

Their store carries everything from cards to candles to jewelry to more playful items like socks with cats stitched on them and a “cuss bank” in which people who use foul language are meant to deposit coins. The store’s inventory also contains evidence of retail trends new (coloring books for adults) and old (a handful of Beanie Babies still nest among their stuffed animals).

“We enjoy going to the gift shows. We enjoy the buying part as much as the selling part,” said Ann, who on a recent weekday morning was unpacking little boxes featuring slogans such as “I can’t imagine my life without you” and “You make my heart happy.”

Ann, who is 78 and whose family came from Milo, has always handled the inventory and layout of the store, she said. Fred, 82, and originally from Rangeley, has kept the books (always in an actual book, no less). They live in downtown Winthrop now.

They have also relied on a steady stream of area residents to work in the store and ice cream shop.

Their busiest shopping seasons are summer and the holidays, and Ann is already getting the store’s Christmas section ready for summer residents and travelers who come to the Winthrop area for its lakes, woods, quietude and small town charms.

“I always hate it when people come in and say the ‘summer complaints’ are coming,” Ann said, using a negative term for those who don’t live here year-round. “We enjoy them when they come.”

One of the joys of running the business for so long has been interacting with all the people who have passed through, Ann added. She has also cherished those moments when customers express surprise or appreciation at being able to find something they wouldn’t have online or in a big box store.

Asked about some of the challenges they have faced, Fred said they were too busy in the early years to even identify the hard parts. Some days he worked from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. But eventually they paid off the mortgage on the building, which used to house a clothing store, and began expanding the space.

“It took a while to get started, but the town was ready for it,” he said.

After the business had been running for a number of decades, though, the old business challenges gradually gave way to newer ones. Rising gas and manufacturing costs meant raising prices and increasingly selling merchandise that wasn’t made locally or in the United States. While a greeting card once cost between 25 cents and $2, it’s not uncommon for them to now reach the $4.50 range.

Large shopping centers and internet shopping have also made for tough competition.

“We were here before there were malls,” Ann recalled. “Malls make a big difference. Young people love to shop in malls more than in little stores.”

“It may reverse down the road,” Fred said of that trend. “We hope it does.”

The Carltons aren’t alone in facing those retail challenges. The downtown Augusta card store Stacy’s Hallmark closed last year for a variety of reasons, including competition from another card shop that had opened in the Marketplace at Augusta shopping center. Stacy’s was in its 43rd year when it closed.

In their 45th year of business, the Carltons don’t have any intention of closing, but they have slowed down in recent years, leaving more work to their employees. Fred said that the bookkeeping keeps his mind sharp. Ann said she appreciates the people.

“We don’t have the energy to stay all day,” she said, “but we still like what we do.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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