Bucking a Trend

Posted Dec. 18, 2008, at 8:24 p.m.

WINTERPORT, Maine — Joe Tyler may have his hands full cleaning and restocking Deb’s Variety on Route 139 for its reopening today, but he’s also busy bucking a statewide trend.

That’s the trend to close, not reopen, Maine’s ubiquitous mom-and-pop gas station and corner stores, which dot the landscape at the junctions of most major roads.

More than 270 convenience stores in Maine closed in 2007, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

And when the stores close their doors, communities take a hit. It happened that way in the western part of Winterport this past August, when just 10 months after Tyler sold the store, its new owners went bankrupt and the store went dark.

“The day I bought it back, we probably got 75 phone calls from people in a four- or five-hour period. They just didn’t want the store to close,” Tyler said Tuesday.

Inside, the kitchen hummed with activity, and more workers braved the cold outside to unload more merchandise. A Budweiser banner proclaimed “Deb’s Variety is Back!”

A few miles away in Dixmont, more positive convenience store news was muffled by the blare of a generator as workers put up drywall at the recently rebuilt store building at the junction of Routes 7 and 9.

The building replaces the Dixmont Corner Store, which burned at the beginning of August.

Richard MacIntosh of Plymouth, who owns the building and land, said he’s working with a husband and wife who want to lease it to run as a store.

“The store’s been there for a long time and I’d like to see it open again,” said MacIntosh, 65. “We used to go when I was a kid. Everybody in town used to come there. … I’d kind of hate to see it disappear.”

A fresh start

Tyler’s story is a little unusual. He and his wife, Deb Tyler, had successfully run Deb’s Variety for 16 years when they decided to sell it in September 2007. The new owner changed the name and operated the store for just 10 months before going bankrupt and losing the property to foreclosure.

The Tylers, who still owned a stake in the property, bought it back at auction on Nov. 6 for $161,000, and have been working long days ever since to get ready to reopen.

While a kitchen employee lined pizza boxes with tissue paper Tuesday, Joe Tyler sniffed the air.

“Smells like Clorox. That’s good,” he said.

“Clorox and fresh paint,” said a smiling Wendy Dean, who runs the kitchen.

Although Tyler is optimistic about the store’s new start, he is the first to admit that business is tough these days for owners of small convenience stores.

High costs and credit card fees mean that storeowners earn just a few pennies per gallon of gas — barely enough to run the electricity on the pumps, they say.

They make their living only if they can entice drivers into the store for a sandwich or a cup of coffee, so Tyler is putting a lot of attention into his deli and kitchen.

Selling a high volume of food is how people survive in the convenience store business, say area real estate agents.

“Your food is obviously your biggest profit,” said David Buchstaber of Stetson, who owns Village Point Realty. “Your mom-and-pops, it’s tough for them. It’s a hard business.”

‘Nightmare of a business’

Buchstaber knows what he’s talking about. He was a part-owner a few years ago in Buddha Bellies, a convenience store in Stetson that was bought last week at a foreclosure auction.

Buchstaber said he has no convenience stores on his books right now, and that’s no coincidence.

“It’s hard to promote a business that has left a bad taste in your mouth,” Buchstaber said. “It’s hard to say, ‘Yeah, you can really do this.’ I say don’t do it. It’s a nightmare of a business. You have to deal with bad checks, you have to deal with people’s credit, you have to deal with people screaming at you because the gas prices are so high.”

Another issue that Tyler and MacIntosh brought up is the perception that Maine is unfriendly to small business. Tyler found the process of chasing down all the licenses he needs to operate was inefficient and frustrating.

“The trouble is, everything’s in a different department,” he said. “You’ve got to run around here, you’ve got to go there. … [The state needs] to regroup and make it easier for convenience store owners.”

John Richardson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, acknowledges these frustrations.

“I recognize how tough it is,” he said. “I’m not defensive about these complaints. I want to make sure we embrace them, deal with them and work towards a solution.”

Gov. John Baldacci tried last year to create a “one-stop shop” for business owners by combining the Departments of Economic and Community Development and Professional and Financial Regulation, Richardson noted, but the Legislature turned it down.

“We need to not overly burden the small-business owner,” he said. “That’s a challenge. I can understand where these businesses are coming from.”

A community store

Bill Saucier has owned B.J.’s Market in Glenburn for a decade. He said that lately he has had phone calls from other storeowners who are wondering how they could survive the current tough times.

“I just told them, if we can weather this storm and get through this economy right now, we’ll be stronger,” Saucier said. “We’re Mainers. We survive.”

He said that in his store, news and information get traded along with foodstuffs, starting with the conversations of the early-morning coffee crowd. Saucier has noticed the proliferation of convenience stores for sale recently and is worried that some of them won’t reopen.

“I’m hoping that won’t be a trend,” he said. “Every time you lose something like that in a community, you lose a lot.”

In Winterport, Tiffanny Eastman lives a five-minute walk away from Deb’s Variety — and about five miles from the center of town. She’s eager for the store to reopen.

“I just like being able to walk to the store and pick up stuff, instead of wasting gas to get downtown,” she said.

Realtor Phil Cormier of ERA Dawson Bradford said that despite the slim profit margins and the complexities of running a convenience store, there is an upside.

“You’ll have a very loyal client base,” he said. “It is a focus point. It is the four corners of every town. Sometimes the corner store is people’s entire social agenda.”

Tyler said that he enjoys his business.

“I like this type of business. Some of the people coming in are real nice to do business with,” he said. “You sure know everybody in town.”

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