By Molly Siegel
It is a clear September day and the sounds of paint scrapers, nail guns, and hammers ring out across the Isle au Haut Thorofare. Volunteers have been working for two days to make much-needed improvements to the community’s Island Store Co-op.
With tasks ranging from stripping old siding, painting trim, and re-shingling two sides of the building, it’s no small job. Over 40 volunteers showed up over the course of the weekend to help with the improvements. Of special note was the participation of all of the island’s contractors, who brought their extensive knowledge to the project.
It is hard to overstate how important the Island Store is to the community. The store is one of the only public spaces open in the winter where people can get out of the cold and connect with other islanders. In the colder and quieter months, the store also hosts Tuesday’s Table, a free biweekly dinner prepared by volunteers.
The Island Store is unusual among Maine’s general stores in that it is cooperatively owned. Most co-ops provide benefits to members, such as discounts or dividends. Since the Island Store co-op operates on such a small scale, it makes more sense to provide benefits in other ways, such as sponsoring community events. As this weekend’s workday shows, it takes an enormous amount of volunteer labor to keep the store running.
Any successful business needs good managers. That’s where Bryn Montoya and Michael Delchamp come in. The two had been living in Blue Hill when they saw the position for a new Island Store manager advertised in the Penobscot Bay Press newspapers. They had been looking to move to an island in Maine for a long time and thought this was the perfect opportunity.
They moved to Isle au Haut in the spring of 2017. They were instantly overwhelmed by support from a community that understands the importance of keeping the store alive and well.
Running a store in a small island community is not without its challenges. Among these is keeping the store well-stocked while minimizing waste. Isle au Haut is a remote island with its closest ties to a remote town. Distributors won’t deliver to Stonington, let alone Isle au Haut, which means the managers often go as far as Bangor to secure the items they need to keep the store stocked year-round.
Despite the challenges, Montoya and Delchamp envision the store eventually expanding its offerings to include prepared foods, such as freshly baked bread. They also hope the store can host more community events. Recently, the store has taken steps towards these goals with the addition of a new picnic table, chairs, and the Maine Lobster Lady food truck. Such additions are helping turn the store into an “economic mini-hub” for the town, says Jeff Burke, who serves on the store’s board of directors.
On a warm day, residents and visitors alike can be found sharing news, using the free WiFi, or enjoying a haddock sandwich at picnic tables overlooking the water.
Montoya and Delchamp say that the best part of running the store is that it is so vital to the town—right up there with the school and the town hall.
“To have this place in our care, it’s a really good feeling,” says Delchamp. “We are stewards of something with a lot of history.”
Molly Siegel is an Island Fellow through the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.She workswith the Isle au Haut community giving technical support for a community telemedicine facility and affordable, sustainable year-round housing.