The big rigs were idling outside. Inside, the lines at the fast-food counter were lengthening. Travelers were striding toward the restrooms.
On this recent afternoon, things were hopping at the new West Gardiner Service Plaza, located just off the Maine Turnpike.
Inside the Center for Maine Craft, however, the hubbub dissipated. There were customers in the gift shop which features Maine-made arts and crafts, but things were slower. Travelers in the store took time to look around and marvel at some of the hundreds of items, from prints and ceramics to children’s clothes and Christmas ornaments.
Despite the quiet on this afternoon, the center, which opened last month along with the rest of the service plaza, has become a hot spot for holiday shopping. It’s much more than a store, however, to the hundreds of Maine craft artists who have been accepted through a jury process to sell in the 2,500-square-foot space. It’s a place where artists can display their work and make connections with potential customers by way of dozens of business cards and pamphlets directing people to the artists’ studios and Web sites.
The center is under the direction of the Maine Crafts Association, which is based in Dover-Foxcroft. Business has been strong so far, MCA director Tracy Michaud Stutzman said, with sales about $1,000 above the early target.
And the reaction of travelers, many of whom have heard of the center and made trips to the plaza specifically to visit it, has been positive. After all, it’s probably not the fast-food hamburgers, convenience store and gas station that draw people from all over the state to West Gardiner.
“The word of mouth has been really important,” said Casey Whittier, the center’s assistant manager and a ceramic artist herself who grew up in Randolph, just three miles from the service plaza. “There are a lot of people who are coming to see this and maybe grab a cup of coffee. It already has become a destination, which is really incredible.”
Located about six miles south of Augusta, the plaza is easy to find. Heading south on Interstate 95, take the 295 exit, pay the 60-cent toll, and then get off the highway at the exit immediately after the toll. A right turn at the exit and a left turn into the parking lot, and you’re there. The plaza is accessible from Interstate 95 heading toward Lewiston as well.
Once you’re finished at the rest stop, collect a ticket at the building’s exit, and when you hit the road again, present it to the tollbooth operator within three hours. You won’t have to pay the toll for your return trip.
The groundwork for the center began about two years ago when Stutzman headed the Maine Highlands Artisan Guild, which helped support artists in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties. The guild, along with a group of institutions including the Haystack Mountain School of Arts, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, Maine Fiberarts, Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and Waterfall Arts, were discussing collaborating on a project that would benefit like-minded organizations and artists in Maine.
“We started talking about something that would be a physical and emotional hub, provide opportunities for artists to have their work seen and a place where people could get information about other artists in the state,” Stutzman said.
Stutzman took the lead on the project, eventually merging the Maine Highlands Guild into the Maine Crafts Association to create a more efficient group. Last year Stutzman and the group approached Gov. John Baldacci about their idea for some kind of physical location.
Baldacci was supportive of the idea, Stutzman said, and offered $10,000 for staff and research if the group could match that amount in one week. The group managed to raise the money quickly and work went forward.
Armed with funding, the crafts association group visited similar centers around the country, including Tamarack in West Virginia, which grew out of a $143 million Parkways Authority bond in 1989. Part of that bond was set aside for upgrading rest stops on the state highways. The center is now located at Exit 45 of Interstate 77.
The Maine Turnpike Authority wanted to include Maine businesses in the plans for the new West Gardiner stop, Stutzman said.
“They wanted to attract people who might come in and shop and experience the center,” she said. “The turnpike authority was very gracious. They managed to revamp the design so the center could be on the front of the [plaza] and make it really attractive.”
The Maine Turnpike Authority built the center for $1.2 million. The craft association raised another $300,000 from various state and federal departments, foundations, companies and individuals to get the center up and running. The store and the service plaza opened in November.
The center currently has the work of around 250 artists for sale in the center, with another 50 artists who passed the jury and are on the center’s roster. Artists sell either wholesale to the store or on consignment.
So far, Stutzman said, about 85 percent of the center’s visitors made specific trips to the store, rather than stumbling upon it during a rest stop.
Old Orchard Beach resident Eleanor Lockwood had been eager to check out the store. A midday trip to Augusta for lunch with her brother provided the perfect opportunity for a recent stop.
“I’ve been trying to conserve gas so I wanted to wait until I was up this way, but I’ve wanted to come ever since I read it was open,” said Lockwood, who picked up two art prints, a ceramic angel, three ornaments, and a forged-steel bowl from Esker Ridge Studios of LaGrange. “It’s a beautiful store.”
The center has plenty of standard holiday items, but all with art in mind. There are angel tree toppers, but they’re simple, sweet felt dolls made from Maine-grown wool by Wheeler Hill Farm in Phillips. A line of handmade ornaments is included in a seasonal display called “Deck the Halls: Limited Edition Holiday Ornaments by MCA Members.” The collection includes work from YIKES! Studio in Dedham, Tamara Duff of Ellsworth, David Jacobson of Montville, Cara Romano of Cherryfield and Conrad Marsh of Dover-Foxcroft.
Janet Cowen of Yarmouth purchased two ornaments during a planned stop. She was eager to buy Maine-made gifts for the holidays.
“They’re gifts for my neighbors,” said Cowen, who had been at a meeting in Waterville. “I wanted to buy Maine things for them.”
Cowen and Lockwood are typical customers – they’ve heard about the store and have wanted to stop in. About 85 percent of visitors knew about the center before they made the trip, Stutzman said. Those numbers may change when out-of-state tourists flood the state in summer.
Cowen is also typical in that she wanted to purchase Maine items.
“Customers seem to really appreciate that there is a prominent place where they can purchase something [made in Maine], they’re supporting a Maine business, keeping the money in Maine, shopping locally,” Stutzman said.
Although most of the center’s visitors are aware of its presence before they stop in, the store is a perfect place to pick up a last-minute gift on the way out of town for the holidays. Old standbys such as blueberry jam and maple syrup are available, but for something different there are flavored vinegars from The Maine Accent in Hallowell and Maine coastal scenes done entirely in chocolate by Safe Harbor Confections of Waldoboro.
Need a gift for a child? Try the bright orange construction-worker vest, complete with plastic tools hanging from loops stitched onto the vest, created by Sweet Fabrics of Calais. Music lovers would be impressed with the lamps by Deer Isle silk artist Suzanne Carmichael, who uses old flutes and clarinets as stands for her silk lamp shades, or the carved cherry wood music stand by Stonington artist Geoffrey Warner. A sampler of soaps from Rainmaker Soaps of Machias would be a perfect present for a hostess.
Warner carved a significant piece for the store itself — the central desk where employees run the cash register. Several display or functional pieces in the center were created by artists and are also for sale. Some of the throws and blankets by Brahms Mount Textiles in Hallowell are displayed on a stand carved by Don Carmichael, also of Deer Isle.
The artists, Whittier and Stutzman said, have spent time volunteering at the center — both the artists and the Maine Crafts Association are eager for the center to succeed. A group of jewelry artists, for example, spent several days helping organizers tag and display their work.
“People don’t work for free unless they believe in something,” Whittier said. “It’s great to feel that community and feel that people are on board with what the Maine Crafts Association wants to do and what the Center for Maine Craft is and can be.”
For more, go to www.mainecrafts.org.