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Backstory: In Maine, a Variety is the spice of life

A store in Castine gets new owners, temporarily worrying locals about their waffles and morning wisdom.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2006



CASTINE, MAINE

For the past three weeks, the windows of the Castine Variety store, at the corner of Main and Water streets just above the town dock, have been papered over with a big yellow sign saying, "Thank you Janis and Ernie Fitch for 15 years." Big doings are going on inside. Tradesmen come and go renovating the corner landmark. The locals are feeling disoriented and hungry. The geographic, culinary, and social hub of Castine, Maine, has been off the hook.

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John Artz, a retired math professor who lives across the street, depends on Ernie for several meals a day and a big dose of teasing. Big Denny, Norwood Bakeman, and Gus Basile, members of the 5 a.m. breakfast club, have to seek their coffee and eggs elsewhere. Though news of a change in ownership at the store has been public since February, it feels threatening to the residents of this Maine village of 1,300 on Penobscot Bay. True, Janis will continue working there, and the new owners, Ray Nualla and Lynn Evans, are local.

Yet speculation has flourished about the alterations going on behind the veil. The Variety, after all, is Castine's community hearth. In one sense, it is the classic small-town general store with the elbow-worn diner: the place where locals go for coffee, conversation, and all the news that no one will print. But the Variety has its own quirks and characters that make it distinct, even by Down East standards.

Would this be the end of Eggs McJanis and homemade waffles on Sunday morning? Would the famous customer credit-line book vanish? Would there still be birthdays, Red Sox scores, and bill-paying reminders on the chalkboard hanging by the stamped-tin ceiling? Or would latte culture infiltrate Castine?

***

At the old Variety, you could buy sundries from fishing lures to penny candy, spark plugs to The Ellsworth American. Mostly, however, it purveyed comfort and familiarity. Fancier restaurants exist in town, but even the chef of the fanciest prefers breakfast sitting on one of Ernie's stools. "Where else," says Joe Slocum, former town manager, "will you see the wealthiest eating regularly so close to the poorest?"

The Castine Variety is a store with lineage. Janis and Ernie are only its sixth proprietors since 1920. At one time it was called the Corner Drug Store. Yet the Variety has been known less for the name above the door than the person behind the counter. Want a pizza? Just call Ernie or Janis, or before them Gail or Sylvia or Ma Robinson. At a town meeting in 2002, the Fitches were honored as Citizens of the Year. Perhaps more to the point, Janis's lobster rolls were voted best in the state in 2004.

The Variety is the kind of place that makes you feel like a regular, which can include duty behind the counter washing dishes or making the coffee when things get hectic. Dottie Wardwell, a regular, has the daily task of getting the mail. She even has her own key to the store's Post Office box. Ray is a summer person, turned regular, turned employee, turned owner.

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