ELLSWORTH — Ask anyone these days about the state of the city’s downtown, and the conversation often opens with the closing of The Grasshopper Shop last April.
The departure of a longtime anchor of the Main Street retail scene prompted hand-wringing and soul searching over what the future held for the heart of Ellsworth.
Could other businesses expect to meet the same fate? Was this the first note of a death knell for downtown?
The short answer, according to downtown business owners and city officials, is no. Though not without nervousness, as there are other vacant storefronts beyond just the former Grasshopper location, they are generally optimistic about the future.
“It’s a little scary, looking around,” said Bud Connection owner Barbara Courchesne. “But I’m confident things will turn around.”
Along with the optimism is a recognition there needs to be a willingness to try new things to get people to come downtown, from longer hours to fresh promotional efforts.
With other small shops, big-box stores and online outlets — “MDI, Bangor and Amazon,” in the words of Union River Book & Toy Co. proprietor Michael Curtis — all angling for shoppers’ dollars, downtown Ellsworth has to make itself known as a unique destination for shopping, dining, art and more.
It has, by all accounts, a good base to start from. The view from the lower light looking up Main Street matches the image many visitors have of what a New England downtown looks like, and they like it because it cannot be found everywhere.
“Every customer that’s from away, they’ll say, ‘Isn’t this wonderful! We don’t have anything like this back home,’” said Ruth Foster, who has operated her children’s store for more than three decades. “Visitors here are looking for the unusual, and for local color. We still have some.”
And even with the departure of The Grasshopper Shop, known for its eclectic inventory, there is still a diverse mix of offerings — in retail, as well as professional services and cultural offerings — in a small section of the city.
It could be argued, to use John Steinbeck’s description of Lee Chong’s grocery store from the beginning of “Cannery Row,” that it is a place where “a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and to be happy.”
“If you need to buy a gift for somebody, you can pretty much do that on Main Street still,” said The Grand’s Executive Director Gail Thompson.
You can certainly find a bite to eat in downtown. A quick count reveals at least a dozen places to have a meal, snack or cup of coffee, and one more will soon be joining the mix.
Sanjeeva Abeyasekera is set to open Serendib, which will feature Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine, in the former 86 This! space on State Street in the coming weeks.
Most recently the chef at Atlantic Oceanside Hotel in Bar Harbor, Abeyasekera said setting up his own eatery in downtown Ellsworth made sense to him.
“Everybody comes here,” he said.
Just a few blocks up from where Serendib will soon open, Flexit Café and Bakery proprietor Paul Markosian said his first six months in business have “gone really well.”
Flexit fills much of the lower level of the old Masonic Hall at the corner of Main and School streets, one of 10 businesses that call that building home.
Micki Sumpter, Ellsworth’s economic development director, said the historic brick building serves as a microcosm of what downtown has to offer.
“That building in itself has art, food, wellness and more,” she said.
Lea Elliott’s Maine Coast Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine is a nearby neighbor, on the first floor of 194 Main Street. Elliott is now in her fifth year in business, and she said it has been her busiest year yet.
Markosian is one half of a Main Street power couple. He and his wife, Lorena Stearns, moved to Ellsworth a decade ago. They live within the broader downtown area, and in addition to Flexit run Finn’s Irish Pub just down the street.
“We’re very committed to downtown and we have high hopes for Ellsworth,” Markosian said.
He said empty storefronts, while not desirable, are part of the “natural ebb and flow” of things. Others interviewed for this article agreed there is a cyclical nature to business openings and closings.
The closing of a certain business, Markosian added, can be the result of “factors that have nothing to do with the local environment.”
City Council Chairman Bob Crosthwaite said building owners are working to find new tenants.
“Just because you see an empty storefront doesn’t mean you put an X through it and it’s dead and gone,” he said.
Thompson, vice president of the Downtown Ellsworth Association, said the group has put historical photos of Ellsworth in windows of vacant storefronts. The idea came from a similar campaign during Ellsworth’s 250th anniversary celebration when photos were placed in all downtown businesses.
“People just loved it,” she said.
The Downtown Association is one of the groups, along with the Ellsworth Historical Society and city government, working to bring a Museum in the Streets to Ellsworth.
The project involves putting panels with historical photos and narratives up at specific locations around the community.
That would be one new addition to downtown, one that may encourage visitors to linger longer and then peruse the stores and eateries.
It may seem like a simple thing, but Courchesne said those can pay off. She used the Autumn Gold flags as an example, and said a couple recently stopped in her shop just because they liked what they saw on flag-lined Main Street as they were driving through.
What else can Ellsworth do to turn passers-by into patrons, though? Ask business owners what they want for the future, and the word “destination” comes up frequently. They want Ellsworth to be a place people stop and stay rather than just drive through to somewhere else.
Courchesne said it’s a matter of marketing. Visitors have to know what Ellsworth has to offer, she said, if they’re going to decide to stop.
“If you’re developing things but not marketing them at the same time, how is anybody going to know?” she said. She said cities such as Belfast and Brewer do a good job of promoting themselves, and Ellsworth could follow suit.
Crosthwaite said Ellsworth could do what other communities do and shut down a section of a street, such as one of the side streets off Main Street, on a certain day for arts and craft vendors or for entertainment.
He and Thompson both said businesses need to look at having extended hours, and there are already examples of stores that do that. J&B Atlantic and Curtis’s Union River Book & Toy are among the businesses open seven days a week, and Foster’s store is also open on Saturday.
Thompson acknowledged that does require more staffing (and more money, as a result), and that it can be difficult when there isn’t an immediate return on that effort.
Sumpter said taking that kind of risk, however, is necessary to be successful in the future.
“For so long,” she said, “Ellsworth’s downtown was stable. But stable and innovative are two different things.”
Being successful in the future, she added, “all depends on the owners of the buildings, of the businesses, and their openness to work with new ideas and take risks.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained an error. Lea Elliott’s Maine Coast Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine is located on the first floor of 194 Main Street, on the corner of Main and School streets.