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.
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Being a regular means taking a ribbing from Ernie, especially if you flaunt a New York Yankees hat. Ernie takes his lumps, too, of course. Oskar Pedersen, a former town manager, used to rig the tops on the saltshakers, or put rocks in Ernie's hubcaps. Once he put Crisco on the doorknob for Ernie's 4:30 a.m. arrival. Mr. Pedersen swore he'd have the last laugh.Skip to next paragraph
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"On his deathbed," says Ernie, "Pedersen placed a collect call to me here at the store. After I accepted the charges, he said 'gotcha' and hung up. He passed away a few minutes later." Laughing, no doubt. It's tough to get the better of Ernie.
These days, service and value are often defined in terms of efficiency and low cost. A place like the Variety, however, measures them on a scale that is local, unhurried (though Ernie would say otherwise when pizza orders flood in on a Friday night), and personal. For 15 years, Janis and Ernie have dispensed humor, wisdom, a good deal of ice cream, and a sense of community.
Any proprietor of the Variety inherits a mantel of service that is greater than the sum of its clam rolls and 75-cent cups of coffee. When Dianna Paine, a regular, heard the Variety was being sold, she asked: "Who's going to get Woody?" Every Tuesday and Thursday, Ernie drives his truck to Woodrow Bakeman's house and brings him back for lunch. The World War II veteran has been a patron for 70 years.
"If someone doesn't show up for breakfast," says Ernie, "I'll give 'em a call to see if they're OK." When Phil Harmon was laid up, Ernie sent meals. During the ice storm in 1998, the Variety made sure food was delivered to people shut in.
Until recently, the town's volunteer fire department hotline rang at the Variety. If an alarm came in between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m., Janis or Ernie would answer the red phone and summon the firemen with a siren atop the firehouse. A new 911-call center made the red phone obsolete.
Nonetheless, if you want to know anything, you call the Variety. The police scanner's always on, and Ernie will relay the weather, time of the selectmen's meeting, and everyone's whereabouts. Once, a call came from the school tracking down a parent. "He's not here," said Ernie. "No, but he's bound to drive by at some point today," said the caller. "Flag him down."
Trust Janis and Ernie to know the preferences of the local kids who come in, too. Casey eats only vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles. Ariel wants strawberry. Hilary likes her grilled cheese sandwich with one side white, one side wheat bread.
Today is opening day at the "new" Variety. The floors have been sanded and refinished. The counter is moved 20 feet back. There are new appliances in the kitchen, a different blend of coffee (Starbucks has arrived), and even café curtains in the windows. Fishing lures and spark plugs are gone. But Eggs McJanis and Ernie McChicken are still on the menu, along with the creamsicle float.
Professor Artz found his stool and seemed content with the new view, and free coffee. Janis is serving lobster rolls. Ray ferries plates to tables. Ray and Lynn may be the new owners, but it feels familiar, and you can hear a sigh up and down Main Street, as Dottie heads to the Post Office and Woody is expected for lunch.