GRAND LAKE STREAM TOWNSHIP, Maine — The whispers began a few months ago, as often happens in a one-horse town in the middle of next-to-nowhere. And even 100 miles away, outdoors enthusiasts who have adopted this little village as their favorite outdoor playground heard those whispers, loud and clear.
New folks in town. Bought the general store, they did. Longer hours. Different kinds of grub. That’s what they say, anyhow.
Leslie Severance and Brinda Leighton are those newcomers, the new owners of Pine Tree Store in one of Maine’s most iconic outdoors destinations.
They’re eager to make their own mark on the town, but plan to observe many of the traditions that have helped define the store since it went into business in the 1940s.
So stop on by. Sit on the Liar’s Bench. Buy a few flies. Drink a cup of coffee. Heck, buy a bowl of haddock chowder, grab a high stool and belly up to the bar. On second thought, don’t do that.
“That is not a bar,” Severance clarifies with a chuckle. “It’s a countertop. When you say ‘bar’ in Grand Lake Stream, everyone gets excited.”
OK. No bar. But even without it, the duo have plenty of plans for the Pine Tree Store.
Severance says he never planned on becoming a store-owner, but he had to start searching for a second career when he was notified of his impending layoff from Lincoln Paper and Tissue in 2013.
Leighton’s daughter lives in Grand Lake Stream, and the couple had visited often. Each time they came, they noticed that the Pine Tree Store was for sale.
After participating in some career counseling after his layoff, Severance decided to take a chance on something new.
“We don’t have any money, we don’t have a job, so the chances of us getting [the store] are pretty slim, but [I decided] I’m gonna see what happens,” he said.
The pair leased the store from the previous owner for a month and a half while waiting for their real estate closing, and have owned it since November 2014.
It’s no exaggeration to say the store plays an important role in daily life in this spot where cellphone service is worse-than-spotty and the only place you can buy gas — or a Coke or even gloves — is inside that store.
Want to fire up your computer and surf the Web in Grand Lake Stream? You might end up at the Pine Tree Store for that, too. Just don’t try to tap into the wifi signal while you’re sitting in your car out front.
“We have wifi here at the store, but you have to come inside to get the code,” Severance says, grinning and gesturing toward the menu sign behind the bar … countertop. “That’s a strategic deal, so you don’t just pull up and use our wifi. You can come into the store. We’ve got to get you in here to buy something.”
Once inside, you can amble across the pockmarked floor — Severance says the marks have been etched into the hardwood by generations of anglers wearing cleated wading boots — and take a seat on the store’s centerpiece … the famous Liar’s Bench.
No matter that this “centerpiece” is tucked under the front windows, and is not physically in the center of anything.
“This [store] has been a gathering point for a lot of things,” Severance says, gesturing toward the low, rustic bench under the windows, where a guide and a fisherman sit, drinking coffee and telling tales. “I guess that Liar’s Bench has been here forever, and we were told [by residents and guides] that it will stay here forever.”
So, why is it called the Liar’s Bench?
“All the old fishermen and guides would come here in the morning to get their supplies,” Severance explains. “And when they got back from fishing, they’d sit out there and talk about what they caught for the day.”
Fisherman, you may have heard, sometimes exaggerate their exploits. Thus, the Liar’s Bench.
And the new storekeeper in town is perfectly willing to respect their wishes.
“It’s not only our store,” he explains. “It’s the Grand Lake Stream store.”
Severance says he and Leighton talked to as many guides as possible when they were looking to buy the store. That’s understandable: You can’t shake a fly rod in Grand Lake Stream without hitting a guide, and those who live in the area have long claimed that it has the highest concentration of guides in the state.
Then, the new storekeepers listened to what the guides had to say.
“One of their biggest complaints is they need to take their sports out in the morning, and they don’t get their sports back until late in the day,” Severance said.
The result: Instead of keeping the previous owner’s hours — 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. — they’ve decided to open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
Severance says he loves tradition, and vows to respect and carry on many of the customs that he inherited with the store.
Every general store needs a trusty pooch, for instance, and Severance already had one that has made herself right at home in Grand Lake Stream.
Ava, a 2-year-old Lab mix, serves as the official welcoming committee, perking up every time the door opens and a new customer steps in.
“Everybody loves her to pieces,” Severance says. “She’s perfect for the store.
There’s the custom that all of the town’s guides have come to expect: Their coffee is always free.
And the change-on-the-fly attitude that has helped the store survive since the 1940s is still present.
Just belly up to the bar —- countertop — and meet Amber Duval, and you’ll see what that means.
Duval is Severance’s sister, and on Wednesday, she was happily greeting anglers, suggesting items from the menu, and serving up lunch.
Not that lunch always has to be “lunch,” she pointed out.
“I’ll do breakfast all day,” she says. “If you want breakfast for dinner, that’s what you’ll get.”
And that’s not all. On a sign behind the countertop, there’s a sign that Leighton created, and which Duval lives by.
“Ask,” the sign reads. “We might surprise you.”
The message officially means one thing: “If I’ve got the ingredients, it doesn’t matter if it’s on the menu or not, if I know how to make it, I will,” Duval said. “And if I have the stuff and don’t know how to make it, if you tell me how it’s made, I’ll give it a try.”
Her brother, the new storekeeper, seems to appreciate the message in another way.
He, Leighton and the customers are in this together, he says. Things will change — slowly — but he feels a responsibility to the anglers and guides who visit, and to the store itself, which was here long before he ever visited tiny Grand Lake Stream.
He hopes to surprise people every time they walk in the door, with something they didn’t expect, a fly they didn’t think they’d find, or a smile that isn’t as common in retail establishments as it once was.
Severance and Leighton like where they’ve landed. And they’re looking forward to spending their “retirement” years serving the people who live here, as well as the thousands who visit each year.
“We’ve had tremendous, tremendous support from the community,” Severance says. “The people of Grand Lake Stream are just awesome.”