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

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.

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.

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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.

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.

"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.

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