Maine needs more downtowns

The ugly fight between the good people of Wiscasset and Maine’s Department of Transportation about changes to the road through downtown Wiscasset is disappointing. Maine needs to revive our downtowns, not turn them into speedy highways.

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, years ago the block that included Wilson’s was torn down.

Throughout Maine, the local five-and-dime is dead, buried by the automobile, huge discount stores and malls. We drive to the malls in Augusta and Waterville and Lewiston, passing empty stores in our own towns, cursing the congestion and lack of service at the malls, forgetting our own role in the murder of our 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 started 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 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.

Both Augusta and Waterville are working to rebuild their downtowns, but 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 once stood left an even bigger hole in my heart. The bulldozers 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 knew our customers, enjoyed waiting on them, 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.

At some point, the state constructed a highway that allowed motorists to bypass downtown Winthrop, not at all helpful to businesses there, and not long after, a mall and other stores opened near the bypass, furthering the harm to the town’s traditional downtown. I remember one summer when I saw cars from every state in the country in downtown Winthrop. That sure doesn’t happen today.

When Stacy’s closed on Augusta’s Water Street, Stacy Cummings Gervais said it well in their 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 knew just how she felt.

When Stacy’s closed, it left a hole in downtown Augusta, so it was very pleasing when Linda and I noticed, during a recent visit to the Cushnoc Brewery in the old Stacy’s location, that the word “Stacy’s” adorns the top of their wood-fired oven, a nice reminder of that wonderful store and experience.

We do have some great downtowns in Maine, including Hallowell, with markets, art galleries, great restaurants, and other stores. But now the DOT is going to make road changes there so people can speed through the town a little faster.

I’m particularly impressed by the way Rockland has rebuilt and revived their downtown, now a major destination for both residents and tourists. I lived there in the early ’70s, when you couldn’t open your windows because of the terrible smells coming from a fish factory. Much of downtown was abandoned. So it’s really great to spend a few hours, as Linda and I did recently, enjoying the many shops and art galleries along Rockland’s Main Street.

But I can only feel sadness as I travel through so many rural Maine towns and see stores and homes along the main streets abandoned and falling apart. It will take a mighty effort on the part of each of us to restore our downtowns in every Maine town.

To those who are actively working to do that, including the people in Wiscasset, I offer my thanks and good luck wishes.

George Smith can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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