Many regular customers are upset by the recent and abrupt cutbacks at the Port Clyde General Store for the winter. For the first time in the memory of residents, store hours will be curtailed to six hours a day until May.
Marking the literal end of Route 131, the huge wooden Port Clyde General Store dominates the harbor’s edge in this working port, home to many lobster boats and the last groundfish fleet outside of Portland.
“The only service closed until May is the deli kitchen,” wrote store owner Linda Bean, in an e-mail. “Hot foods can be found at our other store, the former Hall’s Market in Tenants Harbor, now known as the Tenants Harbor General Store… only eight minutes away.”
A temporary wall now separates the checkout area near the street entrance from most of the first floor where the harborside deli is located, so a much smaller space now requires heating.
Fourteen employees were laid off, but Bean said all are eligible to collect unemployment compensation. The new hours began on November 7.
The remaining employee, Becky Crane, will serve customers from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. According to a letter distributed to local residents by Bean, Crane will work from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the store’s gift shop on the second floor, The Store Upstairs, which sells books, kitchenware, toys, gifts and chandlery items.
As stores everywhere have adapted to changing times, the Port Clyde General Store has evolved over the years from selling just groceries, provisions and marine supplies to offering prepared foods such as sandwiches, pizza and other hot food.
But to Port Clyde residents, the general store is more than just a place to buy gas or pick up a carton of milk. It’s a community center, where some customers gather daily to share coffee and conversation.
Until recently, even the store’s business listing in the online news service, Village Soup, read: “… more than a destination point, it’s like an old friend people come back to again and again over the years. It is a Port Clyde tradition, a gathering place where the locals meet and plan the day or celebrate a special occasion over coffee at the counter.”
Three generations of the Libby family of fishermen, members of the shrinking groundfish fleet, have frequented the store regularly-at least one of them for his entire life, and their opinions mirror the gamut of Port Clyde reaction to the cutbacks at the store.
Justin Libby, 29, is skipper of the Captain Lee. The general store has always been part of his life. He’s in there every day, getting coffee, or a midday soda.
He’s not just concerned about himself, he’s worried about the “coffee club.” “It’s a bunch of older folks who went there every night. I don’t know what they’ll do now.”
But he’ll miss it, too. “It’s that break in the middle of the day when I’m working on gear that kills me,” said Libby, He ate breakfast there most mornings. “Maybe they could have cut back to save money without going this far.”
Bean bought the store a year ago. A lobster dealer who owns piers in Port Clyde and a buying station in Vinalhaven, she has launched value-added lobster products that include “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll.”
The most recent of six retail outlets for the lobster rolls opened in DelRay Beach, Florida in October. Another is scheduled to open December 3 in the Old Port in Portland. Another is being considered for St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.
Justin’s father, Glen Libby, chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association and president of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Cooperative said, “At face value, the message is: Tourists are more important. But I understand the rationale for wanting to run a business on a profit-making basis. Others who’ve run it in the past have lost money in the winter, but they stayed open,” Glen Libby said.
Glen’s father, Roger Libby, 76, is less forgiving. “I used to go there every day, but I don’t go there any more. I don’t think there was any need to shut down and hurt the townspeople and the people who worked there.”
Bean points out that she’s installed new credit card-operated gas pumps so customers can purchase gas and diesel 24 hours a day at the dock or the street, a feature not previously available.
She also said customers may call to order anything stocked in the store in the area behind the temporary wall and the clerk will pack it for them at no cost. Home deliveries are available for the elderly and shut-ins.
“I appreciate people’s aversion to change, but I know most of the changes that are improvements are appreciated and I hope to stabilize the bottom line from years of hemorrhaging by fixing things up and asking the community to come alongside me and our workers with support through the winter,” wrote Bean, in the e-mail. “I can assure you that the money lost in the winter is not made up in the summer. It is a huge complex to maintain, staff and heat.”
A resident who didn’t want to be identified said she was worried about the employees who depended on the winter income and who were laid off with only a couple of days’ notice.
One of those employees, Sally Sinclair, worked only 12 hours at the store, and when the Wednesday meeting was called, expected she would be laid off, since she was a newer employee with few hours. “I was shocked when the manager met me at the car to say Saturday was the last day for everyone. I wish it could have stayed open for the full-time employees.”
“I am doing my best to make things better. In my first year of operation, I have not been profitable running the store the old way,” wrote Bean. “I am told that nobody has been profitable with the complex in a long string of consecutive owners.
“Rather than just becoming another in a long line of those who gave up, I am trying to make it work and stay in place as an important Port Clyde landmark and gathering place for news and conversation. And winter hours of 6 hours a day-every day of the week-enables that to keep happening 42 hours a week,” said Bean. “If it were actually profitable, why does it keep changing hands?”
Justin Libby said if the deli was losing money, he could understand why Bean closed it for the season, but admits he’s looking at a hard winter: “I guess I’ll have to cook for myself.”
Glen Libby allowed as how it might not make up for the loss of jobs at the store, but said, “We’ve posted a notice-we’re hiring shrimp pickers.” “Capitalism doesn’t give a whit about the individual or the community, though whether or not it should is a good question,” said Martinsville resident, William Cook. “As it happens, I doubt that the recent changes at the Port Clyde General Store will ruin community life in Port Clyde. I shudder to think, though, what would happen if someone with a monopoly on the lobstering industry were to employ the same economic tactics when they failed to make the profits they wanted. That would certainly devastate Maine as we know it.”
Nancy Griffin is a freelance writer and author who lives in Thomaston. Her latest book is Maine 101: Everything You Wanted to Know About Maine, and Were Going to Ask Anyway.