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June 12, 2017
Focus: Small business

Gathering place in 'boatbuilding capital of the world' gets new life

Photo / Ken Woisard
Photo / Ken Woisard
Robert Manheimer leads an investor group that bought and rebuilt the Brooklin General Store on the Blue Hill Peninsula. Beyond offering groceries and other provisions, the new owners wanted a space that could be used for community events, including birthday parties, readings and live music.

General makeovers

Around Maine, a number of general stores have closed, been put up for sale or, in some fortunate cases, been remade. Here are some of the general stores that have gotten new life:

• Handy's Market and Café in Yarmouth in the past two years had a significant renovation. It now has an in-house OTTO Pizza, a community meeting room and the café area sells goods from Holy Donut, Bard Coffee and Standard Baking.

In Alna, Ken and Jane Solorzano bought the town's general store, changing the name to the Alna General Store. They have plans for upgrades and new products and services, the Boothbay Register reported.

• Tenants Harbor General Store, owned by L.L. Bean heir Linda Bean, went on the market in March 2016 for $525,000, and remains on the market. She also owns the Port Clyde General Store.

• The Carrying Place, on Swan's Island, was purchased in 2014 by Connecticut couple Brian and Kathy Krafjack, who renamed the store The Island Market & Supply, increased staple-product offerings, took contracts for propane and mail delivery — all with the aim of sustaining year-round revenues.

In late May, Libra Foundation said publicly it would revitalize the vacant Monson General Store as part of a larger investment in the Piscataquis County town.

Making it as a small store

A 2016 report commissioned by the nonprofit Island Institute in Rockland identified challenges to profitably running Maine's coastal general stores:

High coastal real estate values and property taxes

Small year-round populations

Significant seasonal population declines in the winter.

In response, owner-operators of four stores included in the study tried new strategies to diversify revenue streams, like increasing value-added products or expanding services. The owner-operator concept is also important to success: The report found that relationships with the community are crucial.

The Brooklin General Store is located in the heart of this small community. It's where fishermen gather at 5 a.m. to get their coffee and pastries before heading out to sea. Employees at nearby boatyards stop in at lunchtime to grab sandwiches and the daily specials. Kids pop in for after school snacks. Summertime sailors hike up the road from the docks to provision their boats.

That was interrupted a year ago when the 150-year-old building was demolished to make way for a new building within the same footprint. The new structure, which opened in late May, includes features like wheeled shelves and coolers to create flexible spaces for community gatherings. Through their store manager, the owners will continue to offer proven products and services, and aim to expand the store's offerings based on customer input.

"When we decided to tear down and rebuild, we embarked on the project knowing it would be capital-intensive," says Robert Manheimer, the local member of the investor group, BGRE LLC, which has owned the property since 2015. He was the principal involved with the reconstruction. "But we felt the community deserved to have something that was so important, right in the heart of town, to rebuild, to revitalize, to be a nice place for employees to work, to be a gathering place for the community and a place for the children to go after school and feel safe and welcome."

The lack of a store this past year only reinforces its importance to the community, says Deborah Brewster, chair of the Brooklin Board of Selectmen.

"The store, in my view, is part of the lifeblood of the community," Brewster says. "That key piece has been missing, and we all felt it. I think the store symbolizes a resurgence of business opportunity and a community upsurge in Brooklin that we've all been looking forward to."

So how did the community get along without the store?

"Everyone drives to Blue Hill for groceries," she says. "And another wonderful thing that happened — there's traditionally a group of people who have gathered at the store when it opens at 5 a.m., before they go fishing or wherever they work."

During the closure, they recreated that gathering space at a nearby hall associated with a local church.

"The same group has been gathering there and making themselves coffee, and people have been bringing them muffins and doughnuts," Brewster says. "So this notion of a meeting place is really so important."

Brooklin is a community of about 820 year-round residents, a number that doubles in the summer. A sign on the main drag boasts the community is the "Boatbuilding Capital of the World" — a tribute to builders of yachts and workboats like Atlantic Boat Co., Brion Rieff Boat Builders, Brooklin Boat Yard, D.N. Hylan, Eric Dow Boat Shop and North Brooklin Boats, as well as marinas, boat designers, sailmakers, mooring services and marine photography. The town has a robust artisan and small-lodging vibe, too. And to drive to WoodenBoat Publications Inc. and its boatbuilding school, which are off Naskeag Point Road, you have to pass the general store.

The main part of the store went back to 1866, says Mike Roy who, with his wife Cheryl, was the most recent owner, prior to BGRE. Since 1872, it's operated continuously as a general store.

"I think we were the ninth owner," says Roy. "I'm proud of being part of its history."

The Roys bought the store in 2003, let it go for a short while in 2007 due to family illness, and bought it back a few years later. During their ownership, the couple improved operations considerably.

"It had no computer system, no inventory control," Roy says. "We put in a computer system, and a larger kitchen to do more prepared foods and a lot of baked goods. When I bought it the second time, I had a café in there, which did very well. Every day we'd have a lunch special and sandwiches and soups. It really was fun."

Another family illness prompted Roy to sell the store to BGRE in early 2015. The LLC's members include Manheimer, a full-time resident of nearby Sargentville, and others who are seasonal residents.

"For us, it was an investment," Manheimer says. "We wanted to see the store continue."

In 2015, the investors set up a lease-to-purchase option with a tenant, Steve Nygren, former chief financial officer at Brooklin Boat Yard. Later that year, Nygren was arrested for allegedly embezzling $730,000 from the boatyard.

Without an operator, the store closed in February 2016. The investor group got back in and hired a local building inspector to evaluate a possible remodel. The building had some deferred maintenance when it was rented to Nygren; ultimately, the inspection revealed it would be more cost-effective to tear down the existing structure, which had no foundation or insulation. The building was demolished in April 2016.

Working with architect Lauren Reiter of Brooklin and Eaton Builders of Blue Hill, the goal was to achieve a similar general store feel but with modern systems, amenities such as a front porch and flexible spaces, says Manheimer.

"The display shelving and coolers are all on wheels so they can be moved, if you want to have a birthday party or a book reading or poetry sessions or music," he says. "So we'll be able to use it for special events in a way the other store couldn't."

The plan calls for sourcing local produce where possible.

"We have great local farmers so we're reaching out to them," he says. "We have a code-compliant commercial kitchen, and we hope to focus on prepared foods. We'll also offer the same things the old store did — pizza, gas, convenience items, gloves for fishermen."

Further plans call for a boat provisioning service.

"We want to be service-oriented for people who call from the water," he says. "We want to get orders to the local docks and boatyards. And catering is something we want to get into as well."

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