LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — On a dark, mild night at the end of October, the long-shuttered Lincolnville Center General Store flung open its doors for a party the likes of which the small town soon won’t forget.
The event, a grand opening celebration for the general store, drew an estimated thousand people and temporarily closed down Main Street. The crowd listened to the Mallett Brothers Band, who played on the wide and welcoming wooden porch, and admired the careful renovation job that left the building both gleamingly new and comfortingly connected to tradition. They also saw the features that would surely draw many of them back, including a wood-fired oven that co-owner Briar Fishman described as the heart of the store and aisles lined with groceries, gifts, local produce, freshly-baked goods, beer, wine and more.
“It’s a community place,” manager Ladleah Dunn said. “There’s so much enthusiasm to make the store alive again.”
Getting to this point wasn’t quick, they said. When Fishman and her husband, Phish drummer Jon Fishman, moved to Lincolnville from Vermont in 2006, the tall building in the middle of Lincolnville Center with slanted wooden floors still was open as a general store, although only in the summers. The Fishmans thought it would be cool to run a store and bought the building when it came up for sale. But that was just the beginning of a years-long journey that culminated in the October grand opening, Briar Fishman said. The general store used to boast gas pumps outside, so the Fishmans started cleaning up the contaminated soil, and then moved over to the basement, which was wrapped in asbestos that had to be removed. After that, they sold the building to their contractor.
“We thought maybe we were in over our heads,” she said.
But a few years later, after they had moved back to Vermont and then returned to Lincolnville, they found the store was still a work in progress and were able to purchase it back. This time, they hired Cold Mountain Builders of Belfast as their contractors.
“We started the planning and dreaming process,” Briar Fishman said. “We wanted to serve the needs of the community, which I think revolve around food.”
Dunn, who also is the chair of the Lincolnville Board of Selectmen (Jon Fishman also serves on the board), agreed. Food is a starting point for a lot of things in Lincolnville, as it is in lots of rural, active communities around the state.
“We want to bring people together,” Dunn said. “We want to have a place where food, politics, agriculture and community can all happen. I feel like every detail, every element in the store came together very naturally. It’s been very beautiful to see how organically Lincolnville is integrating into this space.”
Altogether, they spent six years working on the store and making it as close to perfect as they could get. No detail was too small to be overlooked or hurried, and as they dove into the renovation they learned it would have to be more of a rebuilding process.
“We wanted to save as much as we could, but as we started peeling into it we realized there wasn’t much we could save,” Briar Fishman said.
What they ended up with was a building that might be mostly new, but that still has the flavor and soul of an old-fashioned general store. The basement features a custom industrial kitchen, where a team of chefs whips up delicious prepared food largely sourced from local farms and providers. Every day, a hot bar in the store showcases different types of to-go food. Recent menus have included turkey and all the fixings, braised brisket and Indian specialties such as goat korma and wood-fired naan. Also on the menu are wood-fired pizzas, loaves of golden-brown bread, breakfast sandwiches a selection of freshly made cakes, muffins and treats and more. The store also is selling meal kits so customers can make soups and other foods at home.
“We are taking the work out of cooking,” Briar Fishman said.
The grocery section includes bulk bins of rice, grains and other staples, carefully selected beer and wine, and aisles full of interesting condiments, cleaning supplies, personal care items, hardware, gifts and more. For the holidays, they will be selling Christmas trees and also offering Thanksgiving menu items to take home, including wood-fired oven roasted organic turkey.
“We really want it to be a general store in the general sense of the word,” Fishman said. “I think we’re good at bringing in a unique selection of items.”
Creating a store from the ground up and rebuilding a three-story building was a major financial investment, although she did not want to get into the details of how much it cost. Still, Briar Fishman, who looks right at home wearing a general store apron and working behind the cash register, is forthcoming about what the store can and can’t be.
“This is not going to be a business for Phish to underwrite,” she said. “It needs to support itself.”
At lunch on a recent day, it looked like Lincolnville residents and other shoppers were happy to do their part in meeting that goal. The general store bustled with activity, as hungry workmen waited for their pizzas to come out of the wood-fired oven and neighbors greeted each other cheerfully while carrying shopping baskets brimming with loaves of bread, produce and other tantalizing foodstuffs. So far, the store is employing 15 full- and part-time employees, many of whom live within walking distance to the store, and the sense you get is that the town really wants the new-old store to thrive. Customers have been leaving gifts, including fresh flowers and a chess game, and the bulletin board already is crowded with notices of local theater, music and more.
“It’s been really fun to see the transformation and the evolution,” Beth Whitten of Northport said as she waited for her pizza to come out of the oven. “It’s so great to come in and see this gorgeous space and all the light and all the vitality.”
Fishman and Dunn said they are delighted that the store is a vibrant part of the town again. They love buying from local farmers and butchers and serving up healthy, tasty food to their customers. As they said, it’s all about the food — but it’s more than just that, of course.
“It feeds the soul, not just the belly,” Fishman said.
The Lincolnville Center General Store, located at 269 Main St. in Lincolnville, is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.
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