The photo of the Main Street building in 1931 before it became Brown’s Variety store. The Bethel Journals photo

BETHEL — For almost 50 years, many people living in or traveling through Bethel had the luxury of stopping at Brown’s Variety, the epitome of the general stores rarely found today.

In 1936, Leroy and Abbie Brown bought the Main Street building which had housed the Fox and Bean Store, according to The Bethel Journals.

Eventually, Jim and Bea Brown took over the business.

“What made it so unique was that in Bethel, many people could not go out of town to shop. A lot of people did not have a car,” Nancy Brown Vargiu, daughter of Jim and Bea, said.

Jim and Bea Brown stand in their store shortly after selling it to Martin Mendoza. The Bethel Journals photo

Brown’s Variety had just about everything one would need in a small town. Fabric, wool, yarn, clothing, makeup, paper, pencils, pens, toys, dishes, pots, pans and basic tools were stocked. One of the more popular items was Converse sneakers.

The most popular item was penny candies.

A glass candy counter also offered PayDay, Hershey, Milky Way and Three Musketeers bars for 5 or 10 cents.

“They had bubble gum, Tootsie Rolls, red and black licorice, hot balls and candy cigarettes,” Vargiu said.

Vargiu began working at the store when she was 13. Her siblings did also at various times.

Cleaning, rearranging goods and changing window displays were some of her favorite chores.

“Every season at least, we would take everything out, clean the windows and put in a new display,” she said. “We did a display for Christmas, Halloween and we did one in the spring that featured dresses. We used to display yarn in the winter too.”

Before chain stores appeared, people would do the bulk of their Christmas shopping at Brown’s. At one time, 17 employees worked during the holiday season.

“The store had that feeling to it that it belonged to everybody, Vargiu said. “Everybody felt like it was their place to shop.”

Local residents shared memories of the store and what it meant to them:

  • “It was going in as a child and just seeing how the store was stocked from floor to ceiling and that Jim and Marie knew where everything was. If you wanted it, Brown’s had it. My mother was always buying clothing patterns and the cloth to make it with, along with yarn. But the first thing you saw when you came in the door was the penny candy in the glass showcase. I can still see the layout of the whole place, even today. — Jane Ryerson, Bethel.
  • “While I was president of the Bethel Chamber from 1978 to 1982, Jim Brown was a great supporter of the chamber. I remember my mother taking me toy shopping there from 1941 or so every summer until we moved to Bethel. Brown’s had a tremendous layout of kids’ small toys, cars, etc. The back section of the store had their clothing and I shopped a lot there too while in school.” — Don Bennett, Bethel/Florida.
  • “Customers have told me that they would go in with 10 cents and take 10 cents worth of penny candy, but that Jim would only sell them nine cents, because if he sold them 10 cents of candy, tax would’ve made it 11 cents. He would sell them nine cents worth of candy and then give them back the penny so they could buy one more piece.” — Debbie Brown, Bethel, wife of Jim and Bea Brown’s son Owen, who worked at the store.
  • “I can remember being real poor when I was a kid and if we happened to have extra money that’s where we’d get our school clothes, and after buying what we needed, Mr. Brown always put a bag of penny candy together for us knowing it was most likely the only time we ever got a chance to eat candy. It was a local store with everything from clothes, candy, toys but it’s one of the most wonderful times of my childhood that I can remember that was good.” — Tabaitha Steward, Bethel.
  • “I loved going there to get penny candy. The Browns were so patient with all the kids as they chose what they wanted. I remember as a teenager I saw a red bathing suit there. My Aunt Joyce took me shopping in Lewiston and Auburn for bathing suits. I never got one while I was with her. I came back home and got the one I saw at Brown’s Variety. That also was the place that we bought our greeting cards. They would pull out a big drawer containing the cards all filed by category. I have many fond memories of shopping there.” — Lainey Cross, Bethel

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