ISLESBORO, Maine — In small Maine towns, the local general store sells sundries, sure, but also doubles as a gathering place and one of the centers of the community.
That’s even more true on the state’s offshore islands, where stores help those who live in remote locations survive the long winters — or just get through the mornings when they run out of milk and coffee.
Islesboro, a long, narrow island in Penobscot Bay, 3 miles east of Lincolnville Beach, has two stores — the Island Market and Durkee’s General Store, on the north side. But it came close to losing one until galvanized islanders stepped in to save the day.
Thanks to them, the Island Market, which was listed for sale two years ago, finally has new owners: Sky and Marianne Purdy, both 35, who have deep ties to the island and lots of hospitality experience. They also have 2-year-old daughter Eleanor and baby Arlo.
Sky Purdy, who grew up on Islesboro and whose mother, Maggy Willcox, is the editor and publisher of the Islesboro Island News, is delighted to be back home.
“I feel that this community invested a lot in me as a kid,” he said. “I’m looking forward to starting to give some of that back.”
But the family’s purchase of the store couldn’t have happened, he said, without the intervention of the Islesboro Economic Sustainability Corporation. Islesboro voters established that quasi-municipal, nonprofit corporation in November 2019, largely in response to the state’s 2018 decision to more than double the price of a ferry ticket. Ultimately, the state backtracked from its original decision to impose a flat-rate ticket for ferries, and moved in October 2019 to a fluctuating system based on destination and season.
But the original increase was shocking for Islesboro residents, whose 3-mile ferry trip was the shortest of all routes to the islands and the most heavily used. Lots of islanders work and shop on the mainland, something that seemed jeopardized by the rate hike.
“The town realized how vulnerable we were, and how dependent we were on the mainland,” Tom Tutor, the vice chair of the Islesboro Economic Sustainability Corporation, said. “Unlike other islands, which have established much more robust year-round services, on Islesboro we’ve always gone to the mainland for many things.”
He and others on the corporation began the process of identifying and promoting essential services for the town of Islesboro. They polled people and did surveys for months, ultimately coming to a “pretty good consensus.”
“At the top of the list was a store,” Tutor said. “We’re lucky here on Islesboro to have two stores. But the Island Market was in flux. The owners were ready to retire. They had made some motions to find a buyer for the business but had made no progress.”
The problem was that longtime storekeepers Dave “Shake” Mahan and Linda “Looney” Mahan, owned the business but not the property. They had a handshake deal for a month-to-month lease with the property owner, but by the time they wanted to retire, he wanted to sell outright. The parcel included a big garage, the store building and a house, Tutor said.
Enter the Purdys. In February 2019, when they first saw in the Islesboro Island News that the store was for sale, they grew interested. They spoke to town officials and decided to pursue purchasing it. But they just couldn’t make the numbers work.
“We couldn’t get financing without a lease, and we couldn’t afford to buy the property,” Sky Purdy said. “The income from the store wouldn’t have paid for the mortgage on both the business and the property.”
They needed help, and they got it.
“To our rescue came the Islesboro Economic Sustainability Corporation,” Marianne Purdy said.
The volunteer-run corporation decided in February 2020 to buy the property and lease it to the Purdys, and were able to raise $1.4 million from island residents for this and future projects. Even so, it wasn’t a simple — or short — endeavor, Tutor said.
Because there’s a retail gasoline pump at the store, they had to have a full environmental assessment. Then the pandemic, and the real estate boom it has fueled, also slowed things down, with the title search alone taking two months. The corporation didn’t close on the purchase until last month.
“There were so many real estate transactions, everything moved at a snail’s pace,” Sky Purdy said.
Meanwhile, he and Marianne began working with the Mahans last summer in order to have a smooth transition. Dave Mahan, who had owned the store with his wife for 25 years, had purchased a boat and wanted to bring it south. He left Maine in October, and this month his wife joined him.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Dave Mahan said in a phone interview from his boat, which is currently moored in Savannah, Georgia. “I think they’re going to do a great job. We wanted to sell it pretty desperately — it was time. And it took a long time.”
He and his wife are glad, and a bit relieved, that the Purdys were able to make it happen.
“We didn’t really want to sell it to somebody from [out of state] who had too much money and thought they wanted to semi-retire. We knew how much work it was,” he said. “We’re happy it was somebody from the island, who has a real genuine interest in the community.”
The Purdys, who will move into the house next to the store once the corporation has spruced it up a little, are working hard at the store.
“We’re excited about making it our own and making changes,” Sky Purdy said. “But also really trying to engage the community as much as we can, to have a conversation about their needs and what they’d like the Island Market to look like.”
Marianne Purdy, an EMT, has joined the Islesboro Ambulance Service, and said that it’s been nice to put down roots. She and Sky Purdy met while hiking the Appalachian Trail and have spent 12 years doing mostly seasonal backcountry hospitality work at places as far-flung as Denali National Park in Alaska, Guatemala, New Zealand and Maine Huts & Trails.
“We’ve been on the move for so long, it’s kind of nice to know what we’re going to do tomorrow,” she said.
But that wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of help.
“It really took the efforts of the corporation and the whole community to get this done,” Dave Mahan said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.”