Bob’s Corner Store: Part One

Bob’s Corner Store: Part One

Last week’s story by Sam Wheeler in the Bethel Citizen, “Looking back at Bob’s,” brought on a wave of nostalgia, as I recalled my own eleven-plus years behind the counter at Bob’s Corner Store in Locke’s Mills.

I set out to write about those years, but quickly realized that my connection to Bob’s extends back much further than May of 1978, when I was 19 years old and had just landed my dream job—running the cash register, stocking the shelves and beer coolers, and pumping gas for Bob Coolidge.

So I’ll save my reminiscences about working there (and I have many!) for my next post, and, for now, write about my earlier memories of the store and its longtime proprietor.

Bobs Corner Store 3_26_2011 003

This photo was taken in 2011, when Bob was no longer the owner of the store, but except for the paint colors (it was always white, with green trim, when it was Bob’s), it didn’t look much different.

Like many “summer people” on North, South, and Round Ponds in Woodstock and Greenwood (I didn’t yet know that we were sometimes referred to as “summer complaint”), I traveled to the store by boat nearly every day in July and August from the time I was old enough to walk, talk, and demand penny candy.

My sister, Leslie, and I would take the family motorboat, a 1958 13-foot aluminum Duratech Runabout (my brothers will be sure to correct me if I’m wrong about those details), from our camp on the east shore of North Pond to the village of Locke’s Mills to pick up bread, milk, and the daily newspaper at Bob’s Corner Store (or, as it was known until the early 1970s, under the ownership of Lee Mills, Lee’s Variety).

My sister was nearly ten years older than I, and was therefore in charge of our mom’s list and, of course, the money.

She also always drove the boat. It was powered during those years by a cranky 18-horsepower maroon-and-white Johnson outboard, which was really far too much motor for it. We always carried a splintery old canoe paddle with us, and when the motor broke down, as it often did, we had to take turns paddling back to camp.

Quite often, there were visitors at camp—cousins, friends, or, later, nieces and nephews—and there would be five or six kids in the boat, all of us clad in bulky orange kapok life jackets. The weight of extra passengers came in handy when the water level of the lake was high, allowing us to sit low enough in the water to get through Johnny’s Bridge without scraping the steering wheel on the rough concrete overhead.

We still had to duck our heads to fit under the bridge, of course, or even lie down in the bottom of the boat, where spilled gas and oil mingled with remnants of the bacon rind and freshwater mussels we used for bait when we fished for white perch and sunfish.

Then it was on through “the channel,” where we tried to avoid letting the propeller hit any of the dozens of underwater stumps (we always carried extra shear pins just in case), past the picnic area, through the taller bridge under Route 26, and on to the store.

Damp and smelly, we jumped out onto the dock and clambered up the steep slope to the parking lot, dancing across the hot pavement in our bare feet. (There was never, that I can recall, a “No Bare Feet” sign on the door of Bob’s Corner Store.)

After picking up the items on our mom’s list, my sister doled out the change into our waiting palms. This was the moment we had been waiting for, and we swarmed the old wood-and-glass candy counter, filling tiny brown paper bags with penny candy for the trip home.

When Lee owned the store and presided over the cash register, he would dump each bag out and push our licorice sticks, Swedish fish, Mint Juleps, Tootsie Rolls, and Atomic Fireballs around on the wooden countertop with a thick, grubby finger as he carefully counted each piece. But after Bob took over, he just asked us how much we had in our bags and took our word for it. None of us wouldBob at store ever have dreamed of cheating him out of so much as a penny.

One evening at camp when I was five or six years old, for reasons I can’t remember, my sister took a red felt-tipped pen to my face, adding a sprinkling of bright-red freckles to my cheeks and nose, and I refused to wash them off. When Bob spotted them on our trip to the store the next morning, he began calling me “Chickenpox,” and he never really stopped.

Although I already knew that Maine was the only place for me, and that one day I’d come home and never leave, at the time, I was just a “summer person.” I always wondered if Bob would forget me during the long ten months of the year when I was exiled in Connecticut, but on my first trip to the store each summer, he’d call out, “Hi there, Chickenpox!” and I’d know I was back where I belonged.

Eventually, when I turned twelve, and the family rules permitted me to operate the boat by myself, my mother bought a new six-horsepower outboard motor that was slower, safer, and less prone to breakdowns.

Jen Will & Tide in boat 002

Oh, yes…we still have the 1958 Duratech boat!

By then, Leslie was out of college, grown up, and married, and it became my job to lead the daily expeditions to Bob’s. I became the keeper of the money and my mother’s list. After I’d paid for the groceries and the newspaper, I divided up the change and we’d each fill a bag with penny candy. Then I’d shepherd the younger kids back down to the boat, and make sure they were securely buckled into their life jackets before we pushed off from the dock.

We’d try to ration our candy to make it last until we could make the trip again the following day, but somehow most of it seemed to disappear in the boat on the way back to camp. Someone usually remembered to save a stick of black licorice and a fireball for my mom, although I have a feeling that an hour of peace and quiet back at camp was all the reward she really needed.

I Heart Locke’s Mills…and I have a column!

I have a new writing gig! I am (at least for now) the weekly correspondent to The Bethel Citizen for Locke’s Mills, the village where I live.

Note: Just to clear up any confusion, it’s true that I am a resident of the town of Greenwood, but I also live in the village of Locke’s Mills, just as people who live in the village of Bryant Pond are also residents of the town of Woodstock. It’s a Maine thing, I guess. Wikipedia says: “The village of Locke Mills, on State Route 26 in the northern part of Greenwood, is the town’s urban center and largest settlement.” To further muddle things, most modern mentions of the village call it “Locke Mills,” but our local historian, Blaine Mills, points out that all historical references from the 19th century call it “Locke’s Mills,” so that’s what we put on the signs that welcome visitors to the village, and that’s what I try to remember to call it.2015-03-23 001 2015-03-23 001

For writers, the weekly column is often considered to be a sort of holy grail—the most sought-after outlet for their writing. After all, as Peter Cole wrote for The Guardian, columns “are defined by ownership; the column ‘belongs’ to its author who has that ultimate journalistic luxury, a slot, guaranteed space over which he or she presides and has, in some cases, near total control over content.”

Wow, heady stuff! The “ultimate journalistic luxury”!

I’m taking over the Locke’s Mills column because my friend Betsey, who has written it for the past few years, has given it up. A couple of weeks ago, she wrote in her column that it would be her last one, and encouraged anyone who wanted to take it over to contact the editor.

Remarkably, no one has (so far) expressed interest in the fame and fortune that go along with being a correspondent for the local weekly. Since I already write features and cover school board meetings for the paper, and since I hated to see my own town village, where I’ve lived for over 25 years now, go without a local column (and since someone asked me if I would do it, and I’m very bad at saying no) I decided I would take it over.

When I was growing up in suburban Connecticut, my family subscribed to The Citizen by mail, to keep abreast of the news during the long ten months of the year when we couldn’t be in Maine. The local columns were always my favorite part of the paper.

Back then, there were correspondents from settlements like Middle Dam, Magalloway, and Greenwood City, and I used to like to read about whether the ice was out, where the smelts were running, and who had paid a visit to whom, and to imagine what life was like in those exotic places.

But Locke’s Mills has always been the village closest to my heart. It was the place my sister and I came to by motorboat every day in the summer from our camp on North Pond, leaving our aluminum Duratech Runabout tied to the rickety dock at  Bob’s Corner Store (and, before Bob bought the store, Lee’s Variety) while we walked barefoot along Route 26 to get our mail at the post office.

If it was a hot, sunny day, we would scamper as fast as we could across the burning pavement in front of the gas pumps, to get to the cool grass of the tiny town common where the war monument stands.

From there, we’d walk on the edges of Mellen Kimball’s and Willard Farwell’s lawns, beneath the maple tree near the dam, then along the edge of the mill’s gravel parking lot, where we’d often find wooden treasures to pick up—dowels or glue pins or a screwdriver handle with a bright red enameled finish—to add to our collection.

Back in those days—the 1960s and early 1970s—the mill was running two, or maybe even three, shifts a day, black smoke pouring almost continuously from the tall smokestack. Although there were often acrid whiffs of paint and glue in the air, there was also always the quite pleasant scent of burning hardwood sawdust. It was a smell I associated with summers in Maine, and one the year-round residents of Locke’s Mills probably associated with prosperity.

Before they were torn down, there were several big old houses along lower Main Street, and there would often be kids playing on the porches or steps. I was shy and tried not to look up as we passed, but if one of them called out hello, it gave me a little thrill, as if I were really part of the town, not just a summer visitor.

Since we were here for only two months, we didn’t have a post office box. Our mail came addressed simply “General Delivery, Locke’s Mills, Maine” and we had to go to the post office window, presided over at various times by Connie Blanchard, Mac Packard, or Joyce Hathaway, and ask for it.

If my mother had asked us to pick up hamburger or chicken for supper, we continued on to Hathaway’s Country Store, where Willy Hathaway ran a first-class butcher counter. Then we walked back to Bob’s, careful to watch out for broken glass or metal pop-tops along the road (although by the end of the summer our feet would be tough enough to step on almost anything with impunity).

At Bob’s, we picked up bread and milk and the Lewiston Sun that had been saved for us, our last name scrawled on the upper corner of the front page. Then we counted out our change to see how much we could spend on penny candy from the huge wood-and-glass case in front of the beer cooler.

Sliding doors on the back opened to give us access to red and black licorice twists and shoelaces, Tootsie Rolls, Atomic Fireballs, Mint Juleps, Bit o’ Honeys, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Smarties, and SweetTarts, with which we eagerly filled the tiny paper bags that were kept stacked on top.

When Lee owned the store, he would open our bags and dump the contents onto the dingy hardwood top of the checkout counter, sorting the pile with a grubby finger as he counted, but once Bob took over, he just asked us how much we had in our bags and took our word for it. We never would have dreamed of cheating him by so much as a penny.

Then we’d carry our purchases back to the boat, tuck them up under the deck, and head home. My sister, who drove the boat, always arrived back at camp with her bag of penny candy still full, while most of mine seemed to somehow disappear on the trip.

Now the Locke’s Mills column is mine, in which to write about nearly anything I want. Most of the local columns in The Bethel Citizen are short, tending to run between 200 and 500 words, and my editor suggests a “mix of news/activities and mild opinion.”

In my first column, for this week’s paper, I wrote that “I hope to continue Betsey’s tradition of making this column a mix of local items and town office news, with some of my own thoughts and opinions thrown in for good measure.”

Chances are there will be a good dose of sentimental reminiscing about my favorite village, too.