SKOWHEGAN — Kathy Evans of Skowhegan walked into the new Ginny’s Natural Corner health food store Wednesday afternoon and said what other customers had been saying all day.

“Wow,” Evans said of the new location in one side of the former Evelyn’s furniture store on North Avenue. “Wow. It’s so spacious and beautiful. I like to have an organic choice. It’s just different than Hannaford’s. I like the breads. I like the peanut butter. It’s our only one here in town. We used to have three; now there’s one.”

Virginia “Ginny” Jewell, 41, of Canaan, moved from her previous storefront on Water and Commercial streets downtown over the long holiday weekend and got settled. She said her occupancy contract with the Cornville Regional Charter School, which now owns the Water Street building, expired in January as the school expands its downtown high school campus. She’s been looking for new digs ever since.

“I’m going to have to hire more staff,” Jewell said at the store on Wednesday. “It’s been crazy. We’ve already got more foot traffic.”

The new store’s dimensions are 30-by-140 feet, more than twice what she had downtown. There also is a 40-by-60-foot storage area, an office and break room.

“I’ve more than doubled just the retail floor space,” she said. “I was outgrowing my space. I couldn’t bring in all the requests for specialty items. We were completely outgrowing ourselves. The delivery trucks were having to triple park downtown.”

After a six-week period in the summer of 2012 when Somerset County did not have a health food store for the first time in 20 years, three such stores suddenly sprang up.

Ginny’s Natural Corner employee Lisa Chase rings up items purchased by customer Pauline Coro at the new store location at 217 North Ave. in Skowhegan on Wednesday. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Among them was Jewell’s, who had worked at the Spice of Life health food store for 17 years, leaving as the store’s primary purchasing agent.

She opened Ginny’s Natural Corner at Skowhegan Plaza on the corner of Main Street and Waterville Road that summer.

Spice of Life, which first opened on Water Street in 1992, moved to the Skowhegan Village Plaza on Upper Madison Avenue that summer, too, and ultimately closed. The other store, Simply Natural, opened in the Kennebec Village plaza near Tractor Supply but later moved to Fairfield and finally closed.

That left Ginny’s as the only health food store in the area.

Fast forward to October 2015, when the Skowhegan Plaza parking lot flooded following a powerful rain storm, putting a big dent in Jewell’s business. That event, which destroyed much of the parking lot, resulted in a 60% drop in her business. So she packed up the whole store — vegetables, spices, dried beans and food supplements — and moved.

She settled at 78 Water St. in the former Karen’s Kloset shopping and retail store downtown.

The charter school purchased the building in 2017 and has been expanding ever since.

Jewell would not say what her annual revenues are but said in the seven-plus years she has been in business, sales have increased 8-10% every year.

“We have one of the biggest bulk herb and spice sections — we have over 300 different herbs and spices now and growing monthly,” she said. “Now we have an additional 20 feet of space to expand — easily expand.”

Jewell, a mother of four, said the attraction of her Natural Corner includes hand-ground peanut butter and natural sugarcane molasses, along with essential oils, unhulled hemp seeds, dragon’s blood tincture and “Off the wall Chinese herbs … things I can’t even pronounce … Oriental tinctures.”

“We do a ton of special orders for items that we research and are willing to think outside the box to get customers the products that they want,” she said. “We shop around to keep our prices low. We do bulk buying.”

The store also carries the regular health food selection of grains and cereal, fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and poultry, cheese and dairy products, along with more than 30 varieties of dry beans, pastas and rice.

Jewell said she collaborates in joint purchasing with other health food stores in Maine to keep up with the demand and keep down the prices. She participates in the state’s Farm Fresh Rewards Program for eligible families through Maine Farmland Trust and even does some home deliveries when requested. She also is involved with the Healthy Kids snack packs program in Skowhegan area schools.

Customers shop inside the new, spacious Ginny’s Natural Corner health food store Wednesday at 217 North Ave. in Skowhegan. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Jewell said the fact that Somerset County has become somewhat of an agricultural hub, with the farmers market and the grist mill, has been a plus for her business. Right now she has three regular part-time employees and two or three family members who stand ready as call-ins to work when necessary. She said demand for healthy foods has steadily increased in the past 10 years.

“We’re going to be increasing our current staff hours, definitely, as money provides,” Jewell said. “We’re definitely seeing a need for increasing hours and possibly hiring more from what I’ve seen in these two days.”

Jewell said healthy living is not just a trend in Maine, and health food stores have been around for decades.

“There are certain trends within a health food store, but I’m hoping I’m not just a fad,” she said. “I’ve proven that with seven-and-a-half years on my own that I am not a trend. Every community needs a health food store. We bring back that personal touch. We bring back that community.”

Jewell said some of the big box food stores are venturing into the natural foods market and are somewhat cutting into her business, but stores like hers have found who their customers are and provide items to fill that need.

“You have to find your own niche,” she said. “You have to find your own specialty items. I go to multiple shows a year to find new products, new lines, bringing things that customers want. What’s great about being a small store is I bring in one certain cracker for two little old men — they’re the only people who buy this cracker — but I’ll bring it in for them and that’s OK. I don’t have to move a ton of it.

“We can customize our store to fit our community. That sets me apart. When you come in the door, you get greeted by name. You don’t get that at Walmart or Shaw’s.”

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