JONESBORO, Maine — Even when she was well into her 90s, Millie Look still worked at the family business, the Look Brothers Store in Jonesboro, as she had done every year since the early 1900s.
That was 40 years ago. Earlier this month, Laurie Baird and husband, Belden Morse, reopened the building after several years of abandonment and neglect and named their new venture after the town matron: Aunt Millie’s General Store.
When Baird and Morse bought the property in November 2011, the building was in a state of disrepair. Though there had been an attempt at opening a general store and luncheon cafe on the site a number of years ago, no major work had been done to the building in at least 30 years.
“It was pretty run down,” Morse said. “There was two feet of water in the basement.”
“With garbage floating on top,” Baird added.
The couple saw it as a personal challenge. Morse has 35 years of experience in historic preservation and restoration work as the owner of Steeple People, a restoration and construction company in Machias. Baird just always wanted to have a shop of her own.
“Instead of a midlife crisis, it was like a midlife surprise,” Baird said. “An anti-crisis.”
Both are Jonesboro natives, and the project, they thought, would bring some sense of community back to the Washington County town, which in the last few years has lost all of its restaurants and shops.
The Look Brothers Store had for generations been a cornerstone in the town. Morse remembers going into the store as a young man to purchase his first pair of clamming boots. Other customers have told the owners about coming in through the back door after school to purchase candy. Some remember when the store carried dynamite. Look Brothers also was a butcher shop and served as Jonesboro’s post office.
During the restoration, Morse found evidence of the past throughout the building. The stairs leading to the upstairs apartment are worn unevenly, one side having long been used by Look Brothers to stack goods, leaving the other side for customers to climb to the top floor.
The top floor itself, Baird and Morse were told, was where Look Brothers kept its clothing and candy, as well as a trap door through which Santa magically dropped into the shop on Christmas.
“The woman who told us about the trap door remembered the boy who told her that Santa wasn’t real that night,” Baird said. “He’s dead now, but she still hasn’t forgiven him.”
More than the building, the name itself is keeping Jonesboro’s history intact. The town is still home to Look family members, who are proud to see the name of a beloved relative above the door of the store.
“A woman walked through the front door and broke into tears,” Baird said. “She had taken care of Millie before she died, and seeing her name brought back memories.”
Members of the Look family often come in to the store, telling stories about the store’s past while appreciating what it is today. The new Aunt Millie’s has no plans to sell waders or explosives, or to drop people in Santa costumes through the ceiling, but in its reincarnation it is much more than a simple general store.
Along with grocery staples such as milk, baked goods and pet food, Aunt Millie’s has a functioning cafe that serves up sandwiches, pastries and gourmet coffee. An experienced wool spinner and knitter, Baird also is setting up a back room for knitting and rug hooking supplies, as well as a gallery of creations by Baird and other wool artists.
In the few short weeks that Aunt Millie’s General Store has been open, it already has become the destination in Jonesboro, both for locals and those just passing through. Tourists have been as appreciative of the spot as the locals. During recent heavy rains, a group of long-distance cyclists took advantage of the dry and warm cafe as they waited out the storm.
“If you’re a traveler and you want to read a newspaper, have a cup of cappuccino, and plug in your laptop, Aunt Millie’s is a great place to stop.” said Morse.
“This will be a place to come and socialize and network and relax,” Baird said. “That’s what we really want our atmosphere to be.”
Baird hopes that Aunt Millie’s is not just a place where people stop on their way to somewhere else, but becomes a bolt of life in Jonesboro. “A town just doesn’t feel like a town when there’s no place to go,” she said. “I hope we’ve given Jonesboro a heart transplant.”
Aunt Millie’s General Store can be found on Route 1 in Jonesboro, just east of the Chandler River bridge. Hours are 6 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.