April 13 was the grand opening for an expansion of Cliff Island’s sandwich shop into a general store, Beachead General. Islanders are likely to continue to buy most of their groceries in Portland, but proprietor Libra Cusack hopes to provide islanders with snacks and some of their meat, produce and household items. Beachead General provides a second general store to islanders, in addition to the long-operating store in Fisherman’s Cove run by Suzanne Rieth.

Cusack opened the Beachead General in a space adjoining the Beachead II, the sandwich shop that will have its fourth season under her ownership in July and August. Both are located right off the ferry dock, in Cliff House, a building that has housed a number of stores over time.

“I’ve been working toward opening the store since October,” said Cusack, who hired Finestkind, the local building company, to work on the interior. Cusack stocks the store much the way she shops for bargains for her own family. “I walk up and down the aisles” of large discount stores, she said, “and when I see things at a discount that a household has to have, I buy them. Then I embellish and get the fun stuff,” like candy and ice cream. Also on sale are children’s sweaters that she has knit over the winter, and art by islander Kat Farrin. Because bags of potato chips are hard to handle and ice cream would be difficult for her to ship herself on Casco Bay Lines, Cusack uses distributors for those items. But “I hate having to pass on that price to other people,” she said. On the one day a week when she hasn’t scheduled hours, she’ll be in Portland shopping to stock the store.

Cusack, her husband, and their sixth-grade son have been on Cliff for six years, as the first family to respond to the island’s nationally publicized effort to attract new families. With her husband and son both weekday commuters, Cusack wanted to do something that would provide for her family and be of service to islanders. Since she has been running the Beachead II, she said people have asked her to offer more general items for sale, but that the idea didn’t really take hold until the owner of the building, Bob Wilson, asked her two years ago if she would want to convert extra space in the building into a store.

It was decades ago, when the last general store in the Beachead General’s current location closed, that the store in Fisherman’s Cove started to become a general store. The core business of that store was gasoline and propane, but in response to the needs of the island, a succession of owners slowly added items like bread and milk, canned and frozen goods, and beer, candy and cigarettes. The store expanded from one room to two. Rieth, who with her husband had been a summer visitor for decades, bought the store in 1986.

More like a traditional general store with a regular supply of all the staples, Rieth relies on 17 distributors to stock her store, with goods arriving on Casco Bay Lines. She contrasts stocking her store to stocking a supermarket. “Supplies get dropped off at the Bay Lines, put on the boat, taken off the boat, Chester [Pettengill] drives them over here, and they come into the store and on the shelves. If you’re a supermarket with a national distributor, they just come in the store and load up the shelves. I try to keep the prices down but it’s money out of my pocket.”

Cusack’s new store enters into business conditions that Rieth has seen become much more difficult over her 15 years of store ownership. Taxes, Rieth says, have tripled, and increased ferry service, particularly a mid-morning run in the summer, has helped drain much of her business away to the mainland supermarkets. Other expenses like her beer license and insurance have also risen in disproportion to her business volume. And the slow pace of business can mean quite a lag between, for example, investing in a case of tuna fish and selling the last can.

If business conditions sometimes can weigh heavily on their minds, the general stores seem to be a calling for Rieth and Cusack. They each run their stores without help, keeping five to six hours a day with one day off. Rieth has long been repaid for her time with islanders making visits to the Cove store not only to buy items but to chat. And Cusack’s store offers a table for playing board games, and, in a first for Cliff, a computer that is freely available for Internet access.