We had always lived in metropolitan areas, places where the prospect of a new Linens ’N Things-PetSmart-Barnes & Noble shopping center would elicit excitement comparable to that of children on Christmas morning.
Residents actually lobbied to bring large, warehouse-style stores to the area. People delighted in another new fast-food restaurant because it made their lives easier and the city busier. Indeed, a new Ruby Tuesday or big-box pharmacy assured us that all was right in the world. Without them, what would become of the community?
I dragged my kids, all of them boys, to these chain stores. We called it “doing errands.” The boys hated it. “Moooom, do we haaave to go?” they said. Once inside, they made their point by stuffing their growing legs and feet into the shopping cart and staring at their handheld video games. By the end, they had no idea whether they had been to PetSmart, Costco, or Linens ’N Things. They only knew that they were in a big building with fluorescent lights.
Then we moved to Maine.
One of our first local shopping experiences was at a cake supply store called Cakes by Jan. It’s a small, cozy store packed from floor to ceiling with everything a baker would need. What’s more, the owner knows cakes. And now she knows me and my children, too. She remembers that I’m usually looking for sports-related cake decorations and that Wilton’s butter-cream frosting is my favorite. My boys know Cakes by Jan when they see the black flag hanging outside the downtown storefront and see the cake molds and specialty pans in the window display. They are always eager (even six months too soon) to go inside and pick out a design for their next birthday cake.
Where was this enthusiasm when I took them shopping for cake supplies at the big craft stores in Florida?
Next we were introduced to Sprague’s Nursery, a sprawling garden center on Union Street. My boys call Sprague’s “the jungle with a playground” (see, they actually have names for stores now, instead of lumping them altogether as “errands”) because of the swing set, pathways and bridges behind the greenhouse. They play hide-and-seek there while I shop nearby. And when it’s time to check out, there are no lines and no displays of candy and soda next to the register.
Over the next year — our first here in Maine — we learned to depend on and love a host of small, one-of-a-kind stores, many of them family-owned. There is Briarpatch, a cozy one-room children’s bookstore downtown; Bagel Central, a favorite breakfast spot where we are guaranteed to see someone we know; The Corner Store; Fairmount Market (another place to run into your neighbors); What’s the Scoop?; and Nicky’s Cruisin’ Diner. Just to name a few.
And it’s been my experience that because the city is filled with these personable stores where people know your name and neighbors gather to share news and talk about their families, even branches of larger, national businesses, such as Bank of America and Hannaford, don’t slip into the aloof interactions that are so common in other parts of the country. (The bank teller always remembers that I need three lollipops.)
Sometimes, however, I wonder if people who have lived among this their entire lives realize how special it is. All over the country, small businesses have closed and made way for larger chain stores. The communities around them have lost their identity in the process.
Maine, and especially central and northern Maine, is unique in its sustainability of locally owned businesses, in part because of the neighborliness of its people (you don’t go to Fairmount Market just to buy bread; you go there to talk about the weather with your neighbor, too), and therefore, it is one of the most charming, irreplaceable places we have ever been.
Childhood memories are made in places like these. In fact, my fondest childhood memory is of drinking limeades at the small pharmacy in my grandparents’ neighborhood. It was nothing special, and the drinks were cheap, but I remember being there more than I remember much else about visiting my grandparents’ city. Even when I went back for a limeade as an adult, not much had changed. I recently heard that the limeade shop-pharmacy was torn down to make way for a hotel. And I thought, “Why would anyone want to reserve a room and stay there when there’s no limeade shop?”
These days, my boys don’t bring their handheld video games on errands anymore. Taking them to buy annuals, new books, a morning snack or candle for their birthday cake is no longer a chore. It’s an experience. I had that experience only when I was on vacation visiting my grandparents. I am glad that my children are living in it.
Help keep the memories and the experience alive. Shop locally.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’m Just Saying …,” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.