The grumpy man leaned against the counter, gripping a cup of coffee and scowling at everything. The empty shelves? He scowled at them. The bare coolers? Scowled with particular unhappiness.
"This sucks," he growled. "Where am I supposed to go for my coffee now? The store down the street? I don't think so."
The store down the street was one of the monster chains. Huge, always well-stocked but the very definition of impersonal. Nothing like Leighton's Neighborhood Grocery Store, which occupied a spot on Minot Avenue in Auburn for nearly 60 years.
Leighton's was one of those stores, a place where you'd pay for coffee and smokes but the gossip was always free. A place that was as much about socializing as it was about getting milk and cat food on the ride home. The people who hung out there, including the grumpy fellow with the cooling cup of joe, had been hanging out for decades.
"The regulars," said Dan Gurney, who had been working at Leighton's for 28 years. "They are what kept us in business."
But Leighton's is no more. Owner Harry Leighton hung up the "Closed" sign last month, joining a long list of store owners who succumbed to pressures both financial and socioeconomic. In a day where a person can get everything – from a can of paint to a slice of beef – at Wal-Mart, the corner variety store has been gasping for breath.
Almost everyone you ask will lament their passing, even if they happen to be Wal-Mart regulars. Everybody, whether they were born in the 1930s or the 1980s, has memories of their favorite corner store, where they bought Bazooka Joe gum, Sugar Daddies, Mary Janes, Zots and, yes, those tiny, wax bottles with juice inside them whose name eludes us all.
We asked for corner store memories and they came at us like tiny candies flying from a fully loaded Pez dispenser.
Bea Bouffard, 81, now in Lewiston.
Leadbetter's, owned by George Leadbetter, where Minot Country Store sits today.
"I was probably 5 or 6 and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My grandfather delivered ice from Range Pond. He went all over Poland, taking ice to people who had ice boxes. Part of our trip was a stop at Leadbetter's Store. I was young and cute back then. I always had a 5-cent strawberry ice cream cone. I guess I was just little and it looked big at the time, but he would pile so much ice cream on there, I was in heaven. I thought he was giving me the biggest ice cream cone of them all. I thought I was special."
Nothing tastes the same. That's age, I guess."
Cyndi Burrill Phillips, Wayne
"My favorite store growing up was Thaine's in Canton. It had old, oiled, wooden floors that creaked when you walked on them. A jukebox sat right in the middle of the store. A soda fountain bar went almost the entire length of the store — at least it seemed that long to a very small child! Polly was always behind the bar with a huge smile and friendly hello. We had a camp on the lake and we would go down the trestle by boat to get to Thaine's. It was the highlight of the summer to go 'down to town' by boat! We would get penny candy by the bags (little brown paper bags that would be completely worn by the end of the week) and treasure it for days, taking a few pieces at a time. Big Red Lips — waxed! Fake cigarettes . . . Fireballs and cinnamon sticks . . . bubble gum . . . There were HUGE glass and oak display cases full of every type of candy imaginable to a kid. Also there were little toys and beautiful sparkling jewelry that you could admire while waiting for your candy to be counted up.
"My First Love gave me a ring out of that old display case years later when the fun of collecting candy had faded. I even remember the big old cash register — it was brass. You could always get plastic blow-up water toys and surfboards to round out your visit. Thaine's had everything from A to Z and beyond, but mostly friendly faces. . . . Most of all I remember how busy it was ALL THE TIME and my Dad would sometimes on a really hot day buy me a lemon slush (it had a different name that is escaping my 50-something memory) from Polly behind the fountain bar. The seats were round and spun — fortunately bolted to the old wooden floor — one I will never forget, no matter how old I get!"
Madeline Perreault, 71, used to live on Wood Street, Lewiston
On nearby College Street was Berube's Market
"They sold groceries and penny candy. He used to give us a little brown bag and we'd get three pieces of candy for a penny. The candy bars were a lot bigger in those days. Devil Dogs were double the size they are now. We got a lot for our money back in those days."
The candy? Squirrel Nuts, Mary Janes, licorice, Sugar Daddy.
"The Sugar Daddys were so big, they'd last you a month."
"I remember that store so well."
"Some days my mother didn't feel like baking, so I'd ride my bike down to Berube's to get a cake. They always knew what it would be: a chocolate roll. Those were my favorites."
Next door to Berube's was Harding's Pharmacy
"They had a fountain in there. We used to sit on the stools and have a soda."
Down the road a sneeze was Bedard's Pharmacy. They also had a fountain.
"They would make you a hot fudge sundae and put jimmies and nuts on it and a cherry on top. You could get a real big sundae for 25 cents."
Dee Dumais, Auburn
"I grew up on Nichols Street in Lewiston. Louis's Corner Store was on the corner of Vale and Nichols streets. It had groceries and penny candy — Dots, Tootsie Rolls, Mint Juleps, Pixie Stix were among my favorites. I remember hooking up my red wagon to my bike and riding down to get groceries for my mom. If there was too much, 'Mr. Lou' would follow me home carrying the rest. My parents were friends of him and his wife — when I was born they gave me a Teddie bear that was christened 'Louie.' I had him until I went away to college. The store closed when 'Mr. Lou' became ill, but I look back on those days fondly.
"Gene's Corner Store was located at the corner of Sabattus and College streets where the Thai Jarean Express is located now. I believe the original owner was Gene Berube and his wife, Julie. Julie's brothers, Ray and Rudy Laverdiere, became owners at one point. Another sister, Terry Provencher, worked there as well. It had a lunch counter, where you could order almost anything, and homemade peanuts cooking on a carousel. It is where I first discovered Mad Magazine, Tiger Beat and comics. The Laverdiere family must have had it for over 35 years. Even though it was sold a couple of times since, it was never the same."
Frank Talarico, 83
Before there was Steckino's Restaurant there was Steckino's store at Main and Middle streets in Lewiston
"It had a big long counter where you could have a fountain drink. It was a great meeting place. The people who hung out there went on to become doctors and lawyers and you name it. Steckino's was a great place to be."
"Cigarettes were scarce back then. If you had connections, you could get a pack but you were going to pay for them."
"If you wanted to meet somebody, you met them in front of Steckino's."
Kevin Wentworth, USAF
"As a kid growing up in Lewiston (in the 1990s), the one store that I remember the most was Quality Market. They had the best selection of penny candy. I remember taking my 'milk money' and running from the bus stop on Oak Street to Quality Market just to get my fix. Good times. I have no idea why they closed down. It is a . . . shame. Quality made good egg sandwiches as well. Union Street Market was good, too. No penny candy though."
"My favorite corner store from childhood was Pete's Store. It was located on Center Street in Auburn. I think there is a vet or a mortgage company located there now. I am not sure how long it was open before I went there, but I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. It was around 1974 or 1975. They had the penny candy and the good stuff!"
Tony Reny, Lewiston
"I remember Labrecque’s Corner Store on the corner of Lincoln and Cedar streets in Lewiston. This is back in the '60s and early '70s. Two-for-one penny candy like Mint Juleps, Squirrel Nuts. I couldn’t do the comics and sodas (because Mom and Dad said they ruined your brain), little toy soldiers, cap guns, parachute men, super balls, etc. And Mr. Labrecque knew every kid’s name.
"Another was Archie’s on Maple Street, just above where Maple Street crossed with Knox Street. Early to mid-'60s. Wax bottles with the juice in them, wax lips, balsa planes, plastic planes with the elastic sling shots, and all kinds of novelties and candy."
"Waite General Store! (Route 1 between Indian Township and Topsfield, Washington County.) Tag a deer, buy a red hot dog, rent a movie, get your mail, buy some penny candy, pay your taxes, get your fishing license . . ."
Anne Ceplikas, Auburn
"As a little girl growing up in Massachussets, I loved coming to Maine. Twice a year, we visited my grandparents, the Nybergs, on First Avenue in Auburn. With my sister June and my cousins (the Sjostroms and Nybergs), I would often walk up to McFadden's Store. Clutching our pennies and nickels, we would climb the hill (Park Hill Avenue) and all smiles and mouths watering, Unsupervised – the horror! I tell you, they had the most wondrous assortment of penny candy in all of New England. Other groceries they sold went unnoticed, we were so enthralled. Talk about 'Maine, the way life should be.'
"It was a sad day when McFadden's closed. Even worse than the demise of Mary's Candy. (Sigh.)"
Kathie Dolan, New Gloucester
"I grew up in Portland, and probably like many other cities in the '60s, there were small stores on almost every other street corner. I grew up across the street from Ben's Cash Market, which had a huge variety of penny candy, where I willingly spent half my weekly allowance. The other half went to Sam's Superette, where they had an awesome variety of comic books. Then there was Block's Variety, where I found a wide array of toys. These were all within two blocks of my house. On Munjoy Hill alone there were at least nine small variety stores and one small grocery store . . . Today most of them have gone by the way of the mega-superstores, and with them, the friendly, personable attention we would get, as though each customer was the only customer."
Sandra Overlock, Warren
"My favorite store stood on the corner of Erin and Main Streets in Thomaston, Maine. It sat about half-way between my home and the business district of the town. I used this store in the late '40s, early '50s. They didn't carry comic books, but had lots of penny candy, peanuts and ice cream. One of the things that fascinated me were the cookies you could by in bulk that lurked behind glass doors. My father didn't want us to have store-bought cookies, so I never got to taste one. The store had regular groceries and a small meat counter. The high school was across the street. The building is no longer there. I am sure there are a lot of folks that remember visiting this store. I was allowed to go there and get an ice cream or candy when I was very young. I also remember going to get my mother a pack of cigarettes, and they sold them to me. Probably had a note. Don't remember."
Janey Ramey, Rumford
"We had a store in our neighborhood called Bob's Kwik Stop. It was in the Virginia neighborhood of Rumford. Having 50 cents to go to Bob's . . . was such a thrill! They always had two video games in the back of the store. I remember Donkey Kong being there in particular. They had a couple of candy shelves in the front of the store lined with full-size candy bars, then right on the counter, which was VERY small, they had a bunch of small containers with penny candy. Bob or Claudia usually worked there, but they did have Sylvia Fontaine working there. She was an older lady who was good with the kids. Once in a while their daughters would fill in, as I recall. We'd buy chips, soda and candy mostly. When RC Cola was popular, they would have winning bottle caps. You could win 25 cents, 50 cents or even $1, I believe. We'd cash in the bottle caps right away and buy more candy!
"The owners had another location in town, but as a kid I didn't go there. The one in my neighborhood was the place to be when we were kids! For a while, my school bus stop was near Bob's. How convenient!"
Connie Martel, Lewiston
"My neighborhood store was Laurendeau's Market, where I have fond memories of getting penny candy as a child in the late '50s. It was located on upper Lisbon Street, about a block from were Sam's is now. It was recently a tattoo salon . . . In those days a lot of the parking lots where not paved, so we used to look for pennies on the ground or, if we were extra good, maybe our parents would give us a few pennies as a treat.
"Three sisters owned the store, and they always looked mean, especially when kids walked in . . . They had no patience with us. When we were trying to decide what we wanted and they used to rush us.
"You have to keep in mind that was a very important decision in our lives, deciding what candy we were going to buy. Then we would hang out on their sidewalk — well, they did not like that either. Looking back, those were some of the best times ever. And the candy was pretty good also."
"Carver's Candy store in Turner Village was the best. They had more than candy, but my brother and I didn't care. We'd walk from home about 3 miles, picking up bottles and cans on the way. At Carver's we'd cash in the bottles and cans and get three-for-one penny candies or three-for-5-cents candies, soda and a comic. You could get a whole (small) bag of candy, soda and a comic for 50 cents. We were barefoot all summer and that didn't bother the Carvers, they were a very sweet old couple. After hitting the store we walked to the Turner Library across the bridge and Mom picked us up there for the ride home."
Eva Dudley, North Turner
"House's Market. Proprietor Lawrence 'Punk' House was always a teacher. When I went to his store for my mother at the age of 10 + or -, he would give me many words of advice. Mother would have provided me with a list of items and I would proceed to go up and down each isle looking for them. When I had found the bread, milk, peanut butter, spaghetti, etc., he would look them over and tell me that I had the wrong bread: 'Your mother would want you to get the cheapest,' so I would go back and look again. Coming back and asking, 'How do I tell which one is the cheapest?' He would reply, 'You ask.' So then he took me to the rack and showed how to read the label or the top of the shelf price or the bottom of the shelf price and explained the differences.
"As I aged, married and had children of my own, I visited one evening just about 5 minutes before closing. He was all but ready to leave and I had my 4-year-old son with me. Punk asked him if he wanted the brown wrinkled paper bag that he had in his hand, Eddie replied 'No, you should throw that away.' Punk then opened it to show him that it was the day’s cash receipts.
"Punk always got a laugh out of watching visitors try to pick up a coin from the floor. He had somehow attached it to the wooden floor and it was not going anywhere.
"Then in 1999 when he announced his retirement, my husband and I went over to see the clearance sale bargains. Punk always had a few post cards for sale, and I offered him $5 for the two racks that displayed them. He said, 'Well if you like them that much I should ask $20,' then gave them to me.
"He now is a selectman for Turner and has served on many boards and committees, the food bank, the clothing center, many civic groups — showing interest in the welfare of others. He is a remarkable man helping the community raise its children. He gives advice worth listening too."
"As a young boy growing up in the '60s and '70s we had a local store just down the street from our home. Actually we could see it from our home. Levesque's Variety Store at the corner of Eustis Street and Lisbon Street was our neighborhood candy store, supermarket, deli, fruit stand and just a great place to hang out to shoot the (breeze) with Armand the owner.
"I have plenty of stories about my many years as a young boy bringing in my 2-cent bottles for penny candy and many summers working as their stock boy, floor sweeper, cooler filler . . . You name it I did it!"
"Herb's used to be at the corner of Court Street and Granite Street in Auburn. I bought much candy there, as well as sitting at the counter and ordering a chocolate frappe. Loved the Three Musketeers for 5 cents! And as a Webster Junior High student, we loved to go over to Gowell's on Hampshire Street during our lunch break. Lot's of good memories."
"Ray's Variety on Walnut (Street in Lewiston.) Could go there at recess from St. Peter's."
"I have fond memories of Phillips General Store and Post Office, Brettun's, Livermore Village, Maine."
Some old-time stores still in existence, recommended by our readers
Webb's Market, Lewiston
Bourque's, Lewiston. (Real butchers at work.)
Union Street Market, Lewiston
Kitty Korner, Lisbon
Spring Street Variety, Lewiston (Used to be Dick's Variety.)
Victor News, Lewiston (All that's missing is the smell of pipe smoke.)
Some readers' favorite penny candy (and why you've spent tens of thousands of dollars for dental work)
Zotz. They fizzed in your mouth.
Sugar Daddy. Remember the huge ones? Your dentist loves them.
Mary Jane. Before it was a code word for pot.
Squirrel Nut Zippers. Your comment here.
Atomic Fireballs. Your comment here, also.
Big Red gum.
Hubba Bubba gum.
Bottle Caps. They looked like bottle caps. But they weren't. They were candy.
Bubble gum cigars. Impossible to quit.
Bubble gum cigarettes. I've seen these in some local stores.
Bull's Eyes. I liked to rip open the caramel to get at the sweet stuff.
Candy Charm Bracelet. Look cool sucking on your wrist.
Tiny parachute men. Not technically candy, but weren't those cool?
Lik-M-Aid Fun Dip. Pure sugar dipped in pure sugar.
Mega Double Lollies. Pure sugar on a stick.
Pixy Stix. Pure sugar in a straw.
Dots. Colorful dots stuck on paper. You ate a lot of paper that way.
Circus peanuts. They looked like dismembered toes to me.
Good & Plenty.
Nonpareils. I still don't know what the name means.
Pop Rocks. They killed Mikey!
Goobers. Also what the neighborhood girls called me. I mean, called you.
Raisinets. How someone made raisins tasty is still a mystery. I mean, blech!