In seasonal towns like Stonington, many businesses close for the winter. When spring comes, residents start to look for signs of when the businesses will reopen. The businesses reopening sends the welcome message that summer, when Stonington will (we hope) welcome happy and free-spending tourists back to the town, is just around the corner.
Because all of the businesses are locally owned, each one follows its own timetable, which means the town-wide reopening is really a gradual process. Some businesses have partially reopened, some have shown activity that suggests they are getting ready, and others remain dark and shuttered, with no signs of life yet.
I like to look for clues about where things stand during my walks around town. Sometimes the signs of reopening are literal signs, like the hand-lettered notice in the door of one of the shops shown below, and sometimes it is doing the things that get a space ready for business—like painting the gray wooden deck and putting up the signs and the bright red lobster at the Stonington Ice Cream Company stand, above. When the handwritten list of flavors goes up next to the order window, completing the last step in the reopening process, we’ll know that summer is really here.
Even before the coronavirus shutdown, our economy was increasingly moving into more of an internet economy, where a lot of consumer commerce was done through online ordering. With the shutdown, that process has accelerated to warp speed. We’re to the point now where Amazon, Fed Ex, UPS, and U.S. Postal Service trucks are an everyday sight in our neighborhood, appearing at all hours. And when you walk down the street you see packages left on a lot of doorsteps.
It’s been a godsend during the shutdown, when the “brick and mortar” stores are for the most part closed by governmental order and people have turned to the internet to supply everything from groceries to clothing to shoes to whatever might help to keep their kids entertained while they are cooped up indoors. It’s hard to imagine what this period would have been like without the online economy to fill the void when the traditional stores were shuttered. That’s the reason you see signs in many places, like the one above, thanking the hardy delivery people for playing such a key role in helping people to make it through this extraordinary period.
But . . . what’s going to happen when the reopening occurs? Are people going to go back to the real-world stores, or will the shift to online shopping be permanent? That’s a crucial question, because while the online world is convenient, it employs only a fraction of the people who worked in the brick-and-mortar retail world before the shutdown. If the American shopper goes into full online mode and the local businesses close, we’re going to have a serious, systemic unemployment problem. And there’s also a local, community element at play. The online behemoths are usually located far away — and perhaps overseas — the stores in your neighborhood typically are small businesses, owned by people in the community who have an interest in the community. I saw a sign recently that read something like “Amazon won’t sponsor your kid’s baseball team.” There’s a lot of truth in that sentiment.
Like everyone else, we’ve done our share of online ordering during this shutdown period, and have appreciated having that option. But when the shutdown ends, I’m going to focus on trying to buy from the local businesses and brick-and-mortar stores that have been so hard hit by the shutdown, and perhaps even be a little more generous than normal in my spending. These parts of our community are going to need help to get back on their feet.
One of the great things about Stonington, Maine is that it’s far off the beaten path. So far, in fact, that it’s totally franchise-free. You won’t find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks here. In fact, you’d have to drive dozens of miles into the mainland before you hit your first franchise fast food restaurant or coffee shop.
Located at the tip of Deer Isle, out in the middle of Penobscot Bay, Stonington is just too small and too remote for the big franchise chains. That means if you’ve got to start your day with some kind of Starbucks brand caramel-topped pumpkin spice latte grande, this just isn’t the place for you. (It also means that you won’t find a discarded Starbucks coffee cup or a McDonald’s wrapper around town, either.)
That doesn’t mean that Stonington lacks for coffee or the other amenities of modern life. Instead, locally owned businesses have filled the niche that would otherwise be filled by the big chains. There’s a great coffee shop called 44 North where you can get your java fix, and there are really good restaurants, ranging from the classic home-cooked offerings offered at the Harbor Cafe (pictured above, where the haddock chowder is addictive and you have to save room for dessert) and Stonecutters Kitchen and the Fin and Fern to the more high-end fare found at Acadia House Provisions and Aragosta. The other businesses in town are locally owned, too — and some of them are employee-owned co-ops.
The local ownership adds a certain indefinable quality to the buying experience. There are signs around the island noting that buying from local businesses means local jobs, and that’s clearly the case. It actually makes you want to shop at the local options and support the local economy, in a way that just doesn’t apply to stopping at a national chain operation.
It’s all a pretty old school approach. There’s nothing wrong with the big companies and their franchises, of course, but it’s nice to be reminded of what America was like before large-scale national brands took hold and unique local businesses lined the sidewalks along Main Street.