PERRY, Maine — Every one of us has visited a small, independent restaurant, business or little shop whose atmosphere is so welcoming, so comfortable, that not only do we feel completely at home, we want to return again and again.
Visitors who walk through the centuries-old doors of The Red Sleigh on U.S. Route 1 in Perry are lucky enough to get that feeling.
Antique metal lawn chairs invite a restful moment; samples of locally grown food and locally made cheeses tease the palate; and then there is the whirling dervish: Georgie Kendall and her ear-to-ear smile.
To call Kendall a shop owner is completely off the mark — she is an event.
Her whirlwind personality is what makes The Red Sleigh work and what has turned a building for selling crafts and food into a community center.
But it was her experience as a counselor with Women, Work and Community — advising other women on economic security — that prompted her to want her own business.
“I focused on uplifting others and I decided to use my skills to bring back this beautiful building in a more modern way while supporting the local economy,” Kendall said.
In other words, she said, The Red Sleigh is an example of neighbors helping neighbors.
She opened last year with seven artisans; this year she has 39 and is still counting.
By focusing on local producers, Kendall is boosting her own economy. By keeping things in an affordable price range — $10 to $200 — she attracts locals and tourists with an eye for handmade, quality items. “It’s all about art with a purpose,” she said.
Once a general store and then an antiques shop, The Red Sleigh is the oldest store in Perry and Kendall has retained its simple, uncomplicated interior.
Huge beams, wooden planked walls and wide board floors soften the sunlight that pours through large, paned windows. Old sleds lean against a corner; a metal tub is filled with dahlia tubers from Kendall’s own garden; an antique coffee grinder sits on a rustic table.
Displayed in every corner are the crafts and art of the Down East area: pottery, jewelry, hand knitting, carving, sewing. But Kendall has taken the idea of local art one step further and has included locally grown food and edibles: cheese, milk, produce and herbs.
If visitors don’t find what they want in the shop’s cooler, Kendall will step outside to the herb garden and harvest it.
To call The Red Sleigh a gift shop is a bit of an insult. It actually is a community gathering place and a social outlet. The artisans who sell their wares also provide the labor, under a contract similar to a cooperative, but they also can be found just sitting around and talking at the shop.
Mona Perry works Tuesdays as a trade for The Red Sleigh, selling her sea glass and beach stone jewelry.
“This shop works for a lot of reasons,” Perry said. “It is very, very welcoming. It has gardens, flags and an incomparable interior atmosphere. I find the whole place inviting.”
As a vendor, Perry loves to be able to sell her jewelry locally.
“I get immediate feedback from the customers and I get to visit not just with other artists, but with neighbors,” she said.
Kendall said part of her commitment to community includes holding monthly parties — complete with local food and live music — to celebrate the area economy.
This time of year, rhubarb candy and arugula salad accompanied by a local goat cheese are on the menu.
“This is truly working together with the land and the people,” Kendall said.
Floating around her shop, Kendall greets each customer, provides biographies for the artists and infuses everyone with her enthusiasm.
“I want to leave behind a tiny footprint,” she said, in one of her rare serious moments. She recycles all wrapping paper and shopping bags — even her business cards are cut from cereal and cracker boxes.
And then she is off again, modeling a sea glass necklace, visiting with a farmer dropping off rhubarb stalks.
Meanwhile, the artists keep arriving.
Local farmers start carrying in baskets of produce.
A customer offers an antique table in his barn as a display shelf.
A local jeweler brings in a box of equipment to display other artists’ jewelry.
And Kendall oversees it all, focusing on offering not just a sale, but an experience and a kick start to the local economy.
“This is the point,” she said. “Local arts and edibles and a community gathering place. It works.”
The Red Sleigh is located on U.S. Route 1 in Perry. It is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call 853-6688.