Is it a Maine morning without Condon's Garage?

A landmark of a simpler life closes, but it will stay forever open and cluttered on Robert McCloskey's pages.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

New Englanders of a certain age grew up with Sal and Jane – the young daughters of children's author Robert McCloskey – picking blueberries on a Maine hillside, losing a tooth on a sandy island shore, visiting Condon's store in Buck's Harbor for ice cream. Fifty years later, many of the same readers still relish these storybook memories, but Mainers in particular cling fiercely to the wholesome tales of what we imagined to be a simpler time.

So when rumors began floating around town that Condon's Garage of "One Morning in Maine" fame would be closing soon, I had to pay a visit to Don Condon. Someone needed to commemorate the occasion, to hold onto this place just a few minutes longer.

It was one of those stubborn late spring days – gray and raw – but by 8:30 a.m. business was brisk. Stepping past the two rusty WD-40 cans discarded in the mud near the door of the formidable old building I was struck by the stratification of stuff – an archaeologist could spend years discovering secrets in the oil-soaked layers of this place. Note the flirtatious Husqvarna girl smiling down from the wall calendar; a business card tacked up on another wall – Cork Cove Smelt Camps, Dresden, Maine; a recent edition of Hunting magazine thrown atop a stack of parts catalogs; a brown (originally black?) rotary phone – well-oiled on the outside; four vintage weed whackers dangling from a cedar bow rack fitting into its corner like a perfectly shaped steamed keel; an old steering wheel hanging from a chain-saw display.

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Patrick Trowbridge was busy removing a vinyl seat from his Boston Whaler to make room for hauling tools and building materials to an island job this summer. After a few minutes he disappeared toward Buck's Harbor Market. He returned much later – a good chunk of the morning gone – with a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

Larry Snowden, the school-bus driver, wandered about making small talk, working his way around to a financial proposal, finally asking Don about an engine out front he'd like to buy: "No hurry, though. I was just kind of wondering." It's all part of the dance.

It's a dance that local planning-board member Chris Raphael apparently hasn't mastered. He darted in and out – just a few beats faster than the local pace – efficiently resolving some minor board business with Don, the board chairman. Chris is from away (as am I).

Finally, when traffic settled, Don paused for a few minutes to reminisce about this place. You may have heard that Mainers are standoffish, but this isn't true. They're reserved, perhaps, but masters at making words and time count for something.

Don's best recollection is that the building – graceful and beautifully proportioned outside, basic and functional inside – was built in 1924 by his great-grandfather, Ralph Condon. The "outer part" was intended to be the garage, the other half a store, and upstairs a movie house. The store never came to pass, nor did the movie house – talkies came in and local movie houses went out. One for three.

Ralph's sons, Russ and Dick, ran the garage until World War II when they had to shut it down to work in the shipyards. When the war ended, Russ opened Condon's Store on the other side of the church (where Sal and her dad got ice cream) and Dick ran the garage.

The third generation of Condons, Don and his older cousin Phil, have run the place for the past 30 years. Phil is mostly fishing and caretaking summer places now, and Don is scaling back, moving the garage business to his home-based shop far removed from the busy harbor. He'll continue with Mercury outboard motor sales and repairs and other miscellaneous boat and automotive work. Saws and mowers? Well, he isn't too enthusiastic about the mowers – can't make any money on them, he says.

The building will be sold and then, who knows? Another village institution, like the grange, the Odd Fellows, and the church sewing circle, receding into the past, to be replaced by the pale reflection of antique stores and tourist shops.

* * *

Don paused when I asked if he has a favorite story to tell. No sense in just blurting things out before you ponder the question a while. Then, slowly: "Over the years bicycle tires have caused as much of a dilemma as anything, I guess."

Seems that Gook (Oliver Bakeman, Jr., who ran the general store over in West Brooksville for many years) was hanging around the garage one day when a young man came up on a bike all outta breath. "Do you have an air hose?" he asked. "Yep," Gook answered, warning the young man that the air comes out of that hose pretty fast, so best be careful. To which the young man replied, "I know. I've done this before." Gook watched the young man wrestle with the hose. The tire exploded. Gook continued to watch – silent, unfazed; no need to waste any more words on this one.

Once Don got going on the bike stories, he seemed to be almost enjoying himself. He offered another: "A bunch of people on bicycles rolled in here on a Saturday afternoon." One young man was eyeing the cars out back and then asked to borrow a screwdriver. Don asked why. The fellow explained that he collected license plates from all over the country and that he wanted one he'd seen out back. Don ordered him off the property.

The story continued: Before Don had time to cool off, another cyclist came along. This one's chain needed a repair, so Don welded it for him. "I held my tongue at first, then I mentioned how I'd run another bicyclist off the property earlier." This cyclist paid him and left. A few days later, Don received a generous L.L.Bean gift certificate in the mail from Leon Gorman (L.L.'s grandson and chairman of the board) to thank him.

So, Don concluded, you never know about people; not all bicyclists are alike.

I was hesitant to bring up the McCloskey topic. Mainers don't like to make a fuss over famous people, and we get more than our share of them in the summertime. So I weighed my odds – I certainly haven't mastered the dance, but I try to step lightly.

Now that Don had brought up Leon Gorman, I took the opening. And he was quick to offer his opinion, noting what an ordinary, likeable sort the writer was, and how both Russ and Dick enjoyed seeing themselves in the pages of the book, as McCloskey saw them. "And he did a pretty good job of getting them right," Don noted. He generously credited McCloskey with making a good story out of this humble place. And recalling the children who still come in every summer asking him to sign a copy of "One Morning in Maine," the hint of a smile crossed Don's face. (Maybe they'll follow the sign taped up on a window earlier this month: "DON and SERVICING HAVE MOVED TO HERRICK RD.")

Don strolled over to check on Patrick's progress with the Whaler, indicating that the interview was over.

On my way out, a smudged cocktail napkin tacked up on a cedar post in the middle of the room near the wood stove caught my eye: "God Bless us ALL ... even the summer people." Which pretty much sums up the whole thing, I suppose. Change comes hard, but it was a good run.

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