LUBEC, Maine — Five years ago, when Debra Kasunic opened Northern Tides, an artisan gift shop on Lubec’s main street, she said an air of abandonment came in every day with the fog.
Empty storefronts, crumbling buildings and the loss of the fishing and cannery industries reflected a place in decline.
“Here I was, alone at the end of a deserted downtown, completely off the beaten track,” she said.
From that first year to last, however, Kasunic has watched her sales rise 285 percent as she now represents more than 65 local artisans and authors. Most importantly, she is no longer alone on her end of the street.
She and her husband, Jerry Kasunic, have had a front-row seat on Lubec’s transformation, watching as new businesses and restaurants opened, crowds of summer visitors arrived, and a sense of renewal filled Lubec’s downtown. The revitalization now has people not just seeking a respite from busy city life, but a permanent getaway.
“About half of our visitors are looking at real estate,” Heather Henry, who along with partner Glen Tenan purchased the Eastland Motel in February.
“They tell us that this is the real Maine. This is the culture they are all looking to see,” Henry said. Now, when people call and ask if it is too early to book a weekend in July, Henry has to say they’re too late. “We are so full,” Tenan said.
Water Street, the main drag along the Narrows, a reach that separates Maine from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, was bustling with activity this week as locals get ready for the summer season. Four restaurants, a new gift shop, a new gallery, several old-faithfuls — including two chocolatiers, a yarn and wool shop, a sea salt producer and a glass artist — and a soon-to-be-opened fifth restaurant, now share space with the town’s library and a historical museum that reflects the area’s fishing background.
Yes, there are for-sale signs on some front lawns, but this spring, they seem balanced by “We’re hiring” signs.
Deborah Thomas, 63, of Dawsonville, Ga., also has watched Lubec’s transformation. She is a seasonal resident of Campobello Island and has been visiting Lubec for more than 50 years.
“I’ve watched the rise and fall of Lubec,” she said while shopping in town last week. “It’s so good to see it on the rise again.”
Thomas remembers the bustling Lubec of her childhood. “There were stores up and down the main street,” she said. But when she returned 35 years later, “it was a ghost town.”
Now, she said, she has fallen in love with Lubec all over again. “It is quickly turning into the place to be.”
Outdoor enthusiasts travel from across the world to hike at three nearby preserves, including the picturesque West Quoddy Head Light and the well-known Bold Coast. All local businesses are open beginning Memorial Day and most extend past Labor Day to Columbus Day weekend.
Al Rummer, the broker and owner at Due East Real Estate, said his agency has more than 600 area listings.
“We had our busiest year ever last year, and that was in a bad economy,” he said. “We’re doing well while the rest of the country starved to death.”
But Rummer cautioned that rural Down East living is not for everyone. “You have to be ready for it and know what life is like here,” he said. “After all, we are 50 miles away from the nearest traffic light.”
He added, however, that the slow-paced lifestyle appeals to many. “People are looking for summer places, retirement homes,” he said.
The popular SummerKeys music program held each summer at Lubec, also has been a boon.
“I’ve sold over a dozen houses to people connected to SummerKeys,” he said.
But the bottom line Rummer admitted is price. “It is still cheap to buy here,” he said.
Kasunic said she hears every day why visitors have chosen this easternmost town. “They just want to know what else there is,” she said. “Places like Bar Harbor no longer mean Maine to them. Here, it is unspoiled. We have the view — seals and eagles outside the window. We have the fishing industry. There is so much to do in the summer we can’t keep up with it. Visitors can smell the salt air, see birds in their natural habitat.”
“I think the catalyst for Lubec was when travelers began telling themselves ‘There’s got to be something else,’” she said. “And that is Lubec.”