BROOKS, Maine — The little town of Brooks has been bustling lately, with the August opening of three new businesses that residents say have brought new life to the Waldo County farming community of about 1,000 people.
Gibbs Family Hardware Store, Motley Cycle and the Marsh River Co-op all opened on the same weekend, and a few months later they are still going strong. That’s great news, according to Brooks Town Clerk Jane McLaughlin, who said that the new businesses help to fill the vacant storefronts that had darkened the downtown over the last several years.
“I’ve lived in Brooks forever, and it was just very sad to see. It used to be quite a vibrant town. It was just very exciting and things were going on,” she said. “You were driving through town and sometimes there wouldn’t be a place to park. And then to drive through and see nothing, it was very sad.”
Perhaps that’s one reason why locals like her are especially set on supporting the new crop of businesses.
“I think that people are respecting and appreciating the small-town atmosphere more,” she said. “People are being very supportive … probably everyone says this, but I think our town is really unique. We have a strong center, and people who appreciate that and don’t want to see it disappear.”
Heidi Gibbs was busy ringing up sales and helping customers find what they were looking for on a recent day in the new hardware store her father, Robert Gibbs, and brother Kyle Gibbs have opened. She said the idea came about because after Paul’s True Value Hardware downtown shut its doors a few years back, her father and brother began stocking more and more hardware supplies at Buxton Service North, their lumber and building supply business in Brooks.
“Customers were looking for stuff they couldn’t find locally,” she said.
Eventually, they decided that the town could support a full-service hardware store, which now stocks paint, chain saws, blaze orange clothing, wood pellets and much more in its brightly lit aisles. Locals who no longer have to drive the 12 miles to Belfast or the 14 miles to Unity to purchase their supplies have flocked to the hardware store, which is open seven days a week and strives to be “very competitive” with big-box hardware stores, Heidi Gibbs said.
“It’s great,” said Ralph Lockhart of Brooks, a cheerful house painter who ran in while wearing his work coveralls. “Whenever you need something, this is the first place I stop. Nine times out of 10, they have it.”
Over in the building that housed the last hardware store, a different type of business is blooming. After three years of planning, the Marsh River Cooperative became a reality in August. The member-run business aims to support the local farms that are characteristic of Brooks and the surrounding areas by giving farmers a place to sell their goods.
“We put together a plan, concentrating on a 10-mile radius of the store,” Ed Hamel, president of the board of the cooperative, said recently. “You can actually survive very well within a 10-mile radius of yourself … 50 years ago, 100 years ago, that was normal, and people lived very well back then, too. People ate what was available.”
Walking up the wooden steps of the old building at the center of town feels a bit like walking back in time. Colorful baskets of apples and gourds entice shoppers to come in to the store, where shelves and coolers are stocked with butter, meat, eggs, milk, dried beans, produce, ice cream, fresh bread and more. One section is dedicated to local crafters, who are selling items including knitted hats, lantern lampshades made out of old tin cans, jewelry and Christmas decorations. Farmers also can purchase grain and horse and chicken feed.
Meredith Toumayan of Jackson, a co-op member and artisan, was purchasing some vegetables there one recent day.
“It just makes me really happy that Brooks can be a more active economic center for local people,” she said. “I don’t have to drive to Belfast for every little thing. It’s more like the way it was back in the day.”
She wondered if maybe the recent revival is connected to a post-recession rebound.
“That is a fantastic thing to contemplate,” Toumayan said.
According to Hamel, the members who volunteer to staff the cash register at what he called the “farmers’ market on steroids” intend to keep it open throughout the winter. The store now is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursday and Fridays.
“This area is very supportive of local business,” he said. “I’m kind of proud of everybody, is the only way to put it. They make an effort.”
Another business owner who said he’s appreciative of the local support is Cody Tibbetts of Jackson, who is one of the men behind Motley Cycle. In a cavernous-looking space, he works on motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and other equipment with small engines.
“We’ve been pretty steady,” he said.
Tibbetts went to school last winter in Massachusetts to learn his trade, then decided to go into business for himself and figured Brooks was a good place for that.
“Brooks is nice. It always used to be a thriving, booming town, with gas stations, garages, stores, everything,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get some of that going again.”