BANGOR, Maine — To hear Rick Schweikert tell it, the Wheelright Building in downtown Bangor is full of magic.
Not spooky magic, just business magic.
“I love this building; it’s got such a cool history,” Schweikert said recently from his office while flipping through a scrapbook of faded photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings. “It almost has a life of its own.”
Schweikert and his wife, Laurie, bought the five-sided building in West Market Square in the late 1980s and their business, The Grasshopper Shop on the ground floor, has anchored downtown Bangor’s retail scene ever since.
“We’ve done great here, but we were looking to slow down from retail a bit,” said Schweikert, who also owns and operates Grasshopper Shop locations at Bangor International Airport and in Searsport, where the couple live.
This is where the story gets good.
The Schweikerts could easily have sold their historic downtown building to the highest bidder and ridden off into the sunset to count their money.
“It’s not about the money,” Rick Schweikert said. “We couldn’t just turn this location over to anyone. It would be awful to see it turned into law offices or something.”
As the Schweikerts began researching Maine-based retailers to see whether any matched the eclectic, boutique spirit of The Grasshopper Shop, they kept coming back to a Portland-based outfit — Mexicali Blues.
When Rick Schweikert called Peter Erskine, who owns Mexicali Blues with his wife, Kimberly, a little more magic intervened.
“It turns out they had been looking to expand into the Bangor market, but they were concerned about competing with us,” Schweikert said.
Erskine confirmed that he had been looking for a way into Bangor but wanted to be downtown, not out near the mall. “We’re not really mall people,” he said.
So, the two couples met and negotiated a deal.
The Erskines will buy the building and replace The Grasshopper Shop with Mexicali Blues, a retail boutique quite similar to the Schweikerts’ shop.
“It’s really nice how it all came together,” said Erskine. “We got a fair price and [the Schweikerts] got the peace of mind knowing that their building will continue as a local retailer.”
The Wheelright Building was built just before the Civil War. It survived the epic fire of 1911 that wiped out most of downtown Bangor. In the past, it has housed a bank, a small business college, restaurants and more.
When the Schweikerts first moved The Grasshopper Shop to the corner building from a nearby location, they rented from then-owner Harvey Hillson. Two years later, the couple bought the building outright.
In addition to the shop on the ground level (it also occupies the basement), the space includes four apartments and office space that is rented to an advertising consulting group.
“We’ve put some renovations into the building over the years, but we’re at the point where we want to turn it over to someone who can take it to the next level,” Schweikert said.
Enter the Erskines
Mexicali Blues has a successful history similar to The Grasshopper Shop. The business opened in Portland’s Old Port in 1988 and has since expanded to locations in Newcastle, Raymond and Freeport.
“They know how involved we are in our other communities, and they knew we would keep the integrity of the building and make some improvements as well,” Peter Erskine said.
Shirar Patterson, Bangor’s downtown economic development coordinator, said the city appreciated the Schweikerts’ diligence in finding the right buyer.
“We look forward to working with them on the transition,” she said. “It seems like the best situation we could have hoped for. It doesn’t feel like a business is leaving us.”
Mexicali Blues looks a lot like The Grasshopper Shop, but its wares are a little more hippie — a little edgier.
“We do a lot more jewelry and clothing, but we’re hoping to expand our housewares,” Erskine said.
Patterson said keeping a similar retailer downtown allows Bangor to retain the dynamic it has been working to build.
For the Schweikerts, it was more about finding the right people.
“They seemed to have the same business philosophy,” Laurie Schweikert said.
Said Erskine: “Before we even talked about numbers, they came to see our operation and get a feel for us as business owners. They were very concerned about having the right buyers. They didn’t want to leave a hole downtown.”
Both the Schweikerts and Erskines declined to reveal the purchase price for the building. According to the city’s assessing office, it was valued at $390,600 on April 1.
Because the two couples developed such an easy relationship, they worked out what both sides hope will be a smooth business transition.
The Grasshopper Shop will continue operating through the Christmas season and then sell down its inventory. Sometime this fall, the shop will gradually begin to introduce Mexicali Blues products.
Erskine said he hopes to open Bangor’s Mexicali Blues officially in early 2011.
The Schweikerts, meanwhile, will focus their efforts on the Searsport location, which is about half the size of the Bangor store, and on its satellite space at BIA, which has done well. Rick’s brother Ken owns and operates Grasshopper Shop locations in Ellsworth and Rockland.
“We’ve done business in Bangor for almost three decades, and we’ve raised our kids here,” Rick Schweikert said. “It’s going to be a little sad to go, but we hope to turn over some of the magic to the new owners. It’s hard to see anything but positive.”