ELLSWORTH — First, let’s get one thing straight: Ruth Foster is not retiring.
“Never retire,” says Foster. “Have something else to keep on doing.”
She may not be retiring, but she is moving on. The longtime Ellsworth resident and former state legislator sold the Main Street building which houses her iconic children’s shop, Ruth Foster’s, last month. After 35 years in business, the store will close its doors Dec. 29 and reopen with a new focus next year under new ownership.
“I will be offering my entire inventory to you, my loyal friends and customers, at 50 percent off from now until then,” said Foster, sitting at her kitchen table, jotting down notes.
Foster is a striking woman, with a shock of white hair. On a recent November day she was dressed neatly in a bright cobalt turtleneck and flowered black vest. But it’s her vigor that is infectious: at 90, she has the energy of a woman 60 years her junior.
“Emily! I’m here!” she shouted, striding into her store on a Monday afternoon. “This,” Foster declared, gesturing to the shelves full of books and stuffed animals, “is the world of Ruth Foster.”
“She is a sparkler,” said former Ellsworth American publisher Alan Baker, Foster’s close friend, who met her while the two were serving in the state legislature in the mid-1980s. He credits her with leading him to James Russell Wiggins, former owner of The American.
“She mentioned that Mr. Wiggins was trying to convince her to buy the paper,” Baker said. “I said, my gosh, if he’s ready to sell the paper I’m the one he should sell it to.”
“She said, ‘Well, you don’t want to own a newspaper,’” Baker laughed.
Foster, he continued, “still has so much energy and so much enthusiasm for whatever she is doing. She is an idea person. She sees opportunities and seizes on them.”
The mother of two daughters, Foster is never unprepared and never settled.
“I’m very slash and burn,” she said, sliding a couple of magazine articles she had gathered (as background for her interviewer) across the table.
“I can get more done in 10 minutes than most people do in an hour.” She added: “All the time I’m talking to you I’m thinking about what to do next.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t present.
Foster is always happy to give a visitor a tour of her sprawling, spotless, State Street home, which feels like stepping back in time. There’s a library room, complete with deep red leather reading chairs and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves (Foster is an “avid reader” of anything but fiction. “I read to learn. I’ve never had time for fiction”). There is also a party room (always at the ready) with a piano and several tables, already set with fine china for the holidays.
“I probably could have kept working two, three more years,” said Foster, walking quickly from room to room. “But I have two daughters, grands and great-grands. I’ll have more time to spend with them.”
In describing her life to a reporter, Foster broke it into segments: there was her time raising children, volunteering with the local hospital and other organizations. Then her service, in her 40s, on the Ellsworth City Council, including her time as mayor, which she called “the greatest job in the world.”
After that, Foster turned her eyes to Augusta: she served five terms in the Maine House of Representatives and was elected twice to the Senate, serving on the Labor Committee and then as the only non-lawyer on the Judiciary Committee, as well as time on the Appropriations Committee.
She was hailed for her work recommending that mediation be required in custody cases and worked hard to reduce Maine’s teen pregnancy rate, work that led to the creation of an Adolescent Pregnancy Coalition. She was also the first woman to serve on the Board of Bar Harbor Banking and Trust Co., from 1986 to 2004.
“She has no fear,” said Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Gretchen Wilson.
“She’s not going to mince words. She’s just been a phenomenal leader in the community, a phenomenal businesswoman, a feminist before her time.”
Foster took over what was then Adams Dry Goods, a mini department store peddling items such as curtains and lingerie, 35 years ago. She sold the remaining inventory and went looking for a new focus. As a new grandmother, a children’s store seemed to make sense. Starting with clothes, the store now carries all manner of delights, including stuffed animals and books.
“I’ve seen my customers grow from babies into adults,” Foster said. “I’ve served their children.”
She leaned back a bit in her chair.
“Downtown is a vibrant community. I’ll miss that camaraderie,” she said.
“Ruth has been a Main Street visionary who has always supported change and ingenuity in our community,” said Cara Romano, director of Heart of Ellsworth, in an email.
“She is an inspiration to all of us, a mover and shaker with a forward vision for Ellsworth. Thank you, Ruth, from all of us in the Heart of Ellsworth.”
She may no longer be holding court on Main Street, but Foster has no plans on slowing down.
“Ruth is not just going to sit and sip coffee all day,” said Baker. “Her mind is as fertile today as it was 35 years ago.”
Foster will be doing some volunteering at Ellsworth Adult Education, working with Director Annie Sargent. And there are still plenty of books to read and bridge games to play.
“Can you imagine at 90 what I’m doing every day?” she asks rhetorically, eyes wide. “I have no idea how. I amaze myself.”
Foster has been a mentor for business owners and others in Ellsworth and beyond, said Wilson, and has always tried to give entrepreneurs, particularly women, a leg up.
“She really is something,” said Wilson. “May we all grow up to be Ruth Foster.”