AUBURN, Maine — Robert Hayes figures his family business is behind the walls of most of Lewiston-Auburn’s historic buildings.
“The old horsehair plasters, the cements and mortars, they were all coming through J.L. Hayes for the big churches and the mills at some point,” Hayes said. “That’s how we really started.”
J.L. Hayes and Co. has been a Lewiston-Auburn standard since 1868 — first on Main Street in Lewiston and then in place of the Macomber Dairy at 817 Minot Ave.
But Hayes is ready to let it go. He signed a sales option on the 4-acre property to an unnamed developer. He expects to sell off the store’s remaining inventory this winter, closing the store and the sale on the property sometime next spring.
“I think you could see a groundbreaking on a new property early next summer,” he said.
Hayes, an Auburn city councilor for Ward 2, said he’s happy to retire, but he imagines he’ll take a part-time job at some point. He plans to spend more time with his family.
“At some point, the land became more valuable than the business,” he said. “And with the coming of the big-box stores, that’s continued to erode our business.”
A great-great uncle, Jacob L. Hayes, founded the business in 1868 as a cement and lime store at 280 Main St. in Lewiston. He began selling feed and construction supplies and right away established the store as an important downtown business.
“We were really the house for masonry tools and specialty products to go with the masonry trade,” Hayes said. “Over the years, that has certainly eroded.”
He worked off and on at the Lewiston store growing up, before enlisting in the U.S. Navy.
“Back then, it was carrying 100-pound bags up and down the stairs for the poultry houses,” he said.
Hayes joined his father, Norman, and brother, Linc, at the business full time in 1976, moving to Auburn in 1988.
“The type of business we had was becoming more home maintenance at that point, as opposed to commercial and wholesale,” Hayes said. “Of course, with lawn and garden materials, especially sold in plastic bags, downtown just was not the place to be. We needed more of a retail operation.”
His father continued at the store until the late 1990s.
“He really eased off, but he kept going until he died,” Hayes said. “My one regret over the years was that we didn’t write down the suggestions he made to people over the years with regard to lawn care, garden care or old building techniques. If you’re in this business, you’re always giving advice on how to remedy something or how to attack a particular critter or insect. It’s been fun to remember some of what he said.”
An avid skier, Hayes said he expects to spend a lot of time at Lost Valley. And he hopes to keep a toe in retail somewhere.
“You know, I really enjoy the business and the people who come and go,” he said. “That’s why I see myself continuing to work in this area, with a part-time job.”