Slowly changing signs of our times

This is a story about a new store sign, and how the one it replaced was auctioned off for the benefit of the volunteers of the fire department and ambulance service a few weeks ago. But first you need to get a sense of the scene.

Big Ernie's Corner Variety is the sort of small-town store where it would not be out of the ordinary, on a particularly busy August day, to find Joe Slocum, the town manager, pitching in to wash dishes behind the counter. Or to find Carl Raymond, the retired fireman, filling the soda refrigerator with fresh bottles, or various customers coming and going and filling out their own slips for video rentals. The Variety gets busy.

For instance, Janice and Big Ernie, the proprietors of the variety for the past 10 years - since Janice's mother, Gail, retired - scoop the most Giffords ice cream in the state of Maine. That's as good a measure as any of just how hectic things can get.

Paul Manning, a marine engineer who used to work for Mobil and is now self-employed, can explain the Giffords phenomenon. He is the author of "Manning's Frozen Confection Coefficient."

Putting his engineering expertise in the service of ice cream lovers, he explains to Ernie's customers that the Giffords is super-chilled, even to the point at which the number of calories required to warm the ice cream for digestion balances the number of calories digested. Hypothetical net calorie intake: 0. Therefore, customers feel free to add a second scoop. Actual net income gain for Ernie: 100 percent.

Above the counter hangs this sign: "Without ice cream, life would be darkness and chaos."

Paul Manning has also been used by a watercolor portraitist as the likeness for a large painting of the Baron de Castin, but that's another story.

Ernie and Janice have been the Bangor Daily News's "news dealer of the month" and do a land-office business in Eggs McJanice virtually every morning of the year.

Another measure of their importance is the fact that the phone, which jangles all day long, will often ring with a query from someone somewhere in town seeking the whereabouts of their son or daughter, members of the town crew, or even just to check on the tide. Janice and Ernie tend to see everyone and everything, in one way or another, in the course of their day. Their vantage point also works in reverse:

Janice called us once to say that Gus, our dog, was wandering the intersection of Main and Water Streets. Evidently, he hadn't seen which route we'd taken back up the hill to home and was awaiting instructions.

Sitting on the counter stool the other day, I witnessed Carl using Ernie's call-waiting service: "If anybody wants me, I'll be over at the judge's place," he told Ernie, paying for his green-apple soda and heading out the door.

And so Big Ernie's Castine Variety, as the sign and the T-shirts say, is the hub, the crossroads of town. And in this town, all roads, literally and figuratively, lead to the Variety.

Ernie, who used to be in law enforcement (his father was sheriff of Hancock County), arrives by 4:30 in the morning to rev things up. Janice follows later, closer to the time Katie, their daughter, is due at school. For the rest of the day, they preside over the meals, snacks, infotainment, and networking of the town of Castine, Maine.

But the other day, Ernie and Janice made news. Traffic stopped when their old sign was removed by David Hatch and Ernie Jr., who had erected scaffolding at the corner entrance to the store in order to make the exchange. In a town where change occurs in often subtle ways - at the speed of paint peeling - this was an abrupt shift. And this was not to be a refurbishing of the old sign, but an updating: the new sign had a revised pictorial theme.

The old sign had hung in place for 10 years. It was painted by Ernie's sister-in-law, Pattie Fitch, who runs the store over in Surry. It had a classic mercantile emblem, neatly lettered, arranged, and weathered to a soft patina at the hands of the salt air and deep cold. On one side: the lighthouse at Dyce Head. On the other: Fort George, which is not much more than some grassy hummocks. To a Castinian, though, the sign is an object worthy of the Smithsonian, given its prominence and centrality to the town.

Suzie Fay, the portrait painter and fiddler who runs the art gallery next door to Ernie's Variety, created the new sign. On the downhill side is a reproduction of the lighthouse at Dyce Head. On the uphill side, though, is the town common, complete with yellow school bus in front of the school, and several kids playing on the grass around the Civil War monument, Gus presiding.

The big black dog spends many hours per day making sure the squirrels stay up in the elm trees, and checking in on the playground while school is in session. When playground balls go missing, the kids search our front yard first.

As soon as the old sign had been removed, Paul Fallow, a volunteer fireman and carpenter, recognized its value as an artifact. Ernie was approached with an offer to buy it, which awakened him to the notion of a benefit auction. It didn't feel like personal property, the sign having been such a significant reference point in the lives of the public, hence his decision that the proceeds would be split between the two volunteer services in town.

The bidding started at $80, and was recorded on a sheet of notebook paper, kept on the counter, and soon punctuated with various and sundry food stains in addition to handwritten bids. In short order, bidding was leaping ahead at $50 increments. Paul Fallow tried to keep up, but dropped out at $650.

Below the coffee stains, the bidding finally topped $800, thanks to a Mr. Tom Buchanan. Then it paused. A magic number had, evidently, been reached, and for one week the conversation turned to likely final bidders and their gambit for bringing the sign on home. Who would it be, and what would become of the sign? Would the winner keep it? Donate it to the historical society? Hang it on the wall at the Variety?

Wanda, who frequently worked the counter for Ernie, seemed certain she knew the bidder with the highest motivation, but wouldn't reveal any names until after the final bell, set for 5 p.m. on the 15th of August. Patrons of the Variety anticipated a frenzy - but that was not to be. The final bid rose to $875; the sign went to David and Linda, new owners of a house on the common.

True to Manning's Coefficient, the bidding seemed to have consumed pretty much all of the available calories, and the volunteer services saw the net gain. It'll be the talk of the town, for a week or so, before the resumption of the usual topics: the retired-skippers' race, the start of school, the first frost, and Ernie's call-forwarding.

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