BUCKFIELD — A local landmark will be gone at the end of the month after 74 years, a casualty of the rocky economy exacerbated by the loss of a major supplier last year.
The owner of Tilton's Market this week made the difficult decision to close the doors April 1.
“It's like somebody in your family dying,” said Everett Tilton, who works at the store with his brother, owner Steven Tilton.
Since 1939, the grocery store and deli has been a Buckfield mainstay, known for its friendliness as much as for its specials on meat and cheese, its fresh-baked goods and its lunch specials. The market's ownership has spanned three generations. Steven Tilton, the grandson of founder Gilbert Tilton, took over the store in 2009.
Steven Tilton said the end began when Associated Grocers of Maine shut down in 2011. He said the store had been weathering the recession well enough, but the loss of the supplier was a blow from which the store never recovered. Since then, it has been using New Hampshire-based Associated Grocers of New England, but Tilton said the extra distance makes shipping more expensive.
“It was a snowball effect of a lot of stuff,” he said.
Recently, he had planned to remodel and carry fewer grocery items to reduce overhead, but earlier this week Tilton realized he couldn't keep the store going. He announced the closing a month ahead of time, giving the community time to say goodbye. Tilton said he also wanted to give the store's five employees plenty of notice.
“Some places just come in one day and lock the door,” he said. “I couldn't do that.”
The store has four full-time employees and one part time, he said. That's down from as many as 14 employees in past years.
The Tilton brothers and their sister, Angela, grew up in their grandfather's market. Everett Tilton remembers chasing his brother and sister around the store when they were children. He said he's been told that when he was very young, he used to ask customers for money to buy penny candy.
Ownership of the store was passed on to their father, Gilbert Virgil Tilton, and finally to Steven, who took on the business with the recession well under way.
Tilton's attracts customers from as far as Rumford and Bath, Steven Tilton said, for its low-price meat specials. The store's motto even boasts, “You can beat our eggs, but you can't beat our meat.”
Tilton said he didn't think anything could be done to keep the store open. One person has discussed buying the store, he said, but they've only spoken once. The store will remain open through March and will continue taking meat orders until then.
Michael Miclon, who owned the Oddfellow Theater for 14 years until its closing a year ago, said the loss of Tilton's is even bigger than the closing of his theater.
“This one's far more devastating for me,” Miclon said. “With the exception of times I've been out of the state, I've come here every day since I could walk.”
He said he grew up with the Tilton family. “This is the iconic business of Buckfield,” he said. “This is where we'd meet people. This is where you'd see your neighbors more than any other place because you came here every day.”
Miclon added, “I love these guys, and I wish them well.”
Reactions from patrons have been pouring in on the Tilton's Market Facebook page, with many commenting that they can't imagine Buckfield without it. One man said the store reminded him of the show “Cheers,” but “without the bar, of course.”
“There must be a way to stay open,” one woman commented. “You are the heart of Buckfield.”