BELFAST - If summer residents of Belfast share one thing aside from a love of their adoptive city, it might be a subscription to Down East Magazine. For those who don't, there was an article last December about City Councilor and tireless Belfast booster Mike Hurley's attempt to embrace a label used for years to deride Belfast's left-leaning, art-forward residents.
"Moonbat Kingdom" as the article was titled after some bumper stickers Hurley made, became a sort of instant classic. It also provided the inspiration for one new business opening downtown this summer. Whether the moonbat thing gets enough traction to inspire a public art installation of fiberglass moonbats decorated by local artists or a glut of moonbat merch vying for shelf space with the venerable lobster and moose remains to be seen. But if you've been away for the winter, it seems only fair to mention that this has been percolating for a while.
In this spirit, PenBay Pilot poked a stick under the eaves of downtown Belfast to see what new businesses had flown in since last fall and which ones closed or moved. And if space allows, we'll tell you a few other things, too.
The flatiron wedge between Beaver and Main Streets, nicknamed "The Gothic Building" after its ornate stone and iron work, was originally built as a bank — the large picture window on Main Street is reportedly a byproduct of installing or removing a safe — and has had subsequent lives as a newspaper office, a cafe and a fine art gallery. Most recently it was home to The Lost Kitchen, which closed abruptly in April after a successful two-year run. Earlier this month, news surfaced that restaurateur and Searsport native Matthew Kenney is planning to open new a restaurant in the space called The Gothic.
Kenney has restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif., and Miami and early indications suggest The Gothic have no trouble picking up where The Lost Kitchen left off in terms of making Maine palatable for the ultra discerning. As a commenter from New York wrote on The Gothic's Facebook page, "We have been looking for a reason to drive to Maine... other than eating our own weight in LOBSTER."
Whether he can pull off the balancing act performed by The Lost Kitchen proprietor Erin French, who hit the high marks without alienating local diners, will be the real challange.
Sweet goods, clever name
The storefronts on the back side of the Opera House building have been famously tricky for retail, but business at The Juice Cellar, a low-key, take-out specializing in fresh juices and raw food snacks has "far surpassed expectations," according to owner Chris Roberts of Stockton Springs, who recently summed up his two weeks worth of sales as though he were looking back through a year's receipts. Then again, the food business runs deep in his family.
His great cousin Anthony Athanas opened Anthony's Pier 4 in Boston, at one time the highest grossing restaurant in the country, his mother was food service director at the University of Maine and Roberts has had plenty of dealings in restaurants himself. He also worked as a recording engineer in Nashville for a time, and had successful run with his line of Barkwheats dog biscuits, which he eventually sold because he wanted to "get back into human food."
Last Tuesday morning, Roberts was leading a customer through a comparative tour of micro-nutrients in different green vegetables and relative amounts of protein in almond butter versus almond milk. The menu is based on juice drinks like the "Vegetable Car" — named for a song about a Mercedes converted to run on vegetable oil — that range from $5 to $8. There are also raw snacks you can sink your teeth into, like macaroons and homemade granola. Everything is vegan including the raw nut-and-coconut-based ice cream he plans to sell this summer, and Roberts said he may offer a daily salad at some point.
If you want to hear Vegetable Car, it's on the Juice Cellar's Spotify.com playlist.
Across Main Street from the Post Office, Michelle Berry and a work crew have been quietly transforming a two bedroom apartment in a historic residential building into a the future home of Moonbat City Baking Co.
Berry is originally from a suburb of Boston and worked for close to 30 years as a pastry chef at restaurants up and down the East Coast including stints at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. and a Ritz Carlton in Florida. Over the years, she made regular trips to Belfast to visit a friend and always had a fondness for the city, but said she was amazed by the recent changes downtown. When she saw the "Moonbat Kingdom" article in Down East Article it made perfect sense.
While living in Massachusetts, she had seen a group of high school students slapped with the "moonbat" label by Boston talk radio host Howie Carr. In response, they took ownership of the name and used it in a successful fundraising campaign.
"It was like, yeah, we are [moonbats], but we're inclusive and we're working for community," Berry said.
When she moved to Belfast last year, she found a similar atmosphere of tolerance and diversity and was tickled to Hurley's moonbat pride.
"I thought it was just the best thing since sliced bread that we could have that name and people would say, 'They've got a bunch of moonbats up in Belfast,' and it's a good thing. It's all inclusive."
Berry is hoping to open her doors in time for the Maine Downtown Conference, which is being held in Belfast this year on May 31, even if that means inviting the day's visitors in to see her work in progress. If everything isn't just right by then, she said, it should be by early June.
And in case you're wondering, there's no animal called a moonbat, aside from the human kind.
Sharing a passion and making some space at home
On the surface Nautical Scribe Books and Silverweb Gifts wouldn't seem to have a lot in common — one business sells nautical books and furnishings and the other dream-catchers, wind chimes and other spiritually infused crafts. But the stores came about in a similar way. Namely, the proprietors' passions outgrew their homes, and after a nudge from a loved one, they decided to take it public.
When Joe and Mary Mosier of Nautical Scribe Books, retired from the Navy and moved to Belfast in 2007, they downsized from a five-bedroom Victorian home to a two bedroom apartment. During his career, Joe had amassed an impressive collection of nautical history books, and in their scaled-back living quarters, the collection took up most of the available wall space. As he describes it, Mary told him he had to get rid of the book, so they opened a store.
Books are the main focus of the Nautical Scribe, but the Mosiers also stock a variety of maritime "furnishings," a broad category that can include anything from photographs and charts to scale model ships, sometimes inside bottles.
"If it's maritime, it's a good chance we have it," Joe Mosier said, adding that if you are looking for something from the New York times bestseller list, the chances aren't as good.
Silverweb Gifts proprietor Priscilla McNally might not have been crowding herself out of her own home, but her creative output was prolific enough to warrant its own space.
"I'd been doing crafts for a long time, and my daughter surprised me and handed me a key," she said.
McNally, whose previous day job was driving a cement mixer, opened her storefront shop at 171 High Street in October. Today the space is filled from floor to ceiling with her one-of-a-kind crafts — dream-catchers, jewelry, birdbaths, miniature headdresses, customized shirts — many of which reflect McNally's Native American ancestry. Soothing music plays in the background. An armchair sits near the entrance to the store and McNally said people often just come in to enjoy the ambiance.
The store — formerly home to Aunt Judy's Uniforms — is tucked into a corner just north of the Mini Mall, which McNally said has made it a little tricky to attract foot traffic. To this end, she has an old wagon wheel she's planning to use as the frame for a giant dream-catcher she can install outside the shop. The other challenge, she said has been thinging of items that will appeal to men.
"They're picky and [in the case of clothing or jewelry] they might work with it, so it has to be sturdy," she said.
She had some luck with a knit hat incorporating panels of Mountain Dew cans — if you lived through the 1970s, you know the kind — that a man bought and later reported wearing to work every day. Since then she made one with playing cards for the panels.
She took it off the shelf and spun it around on her hand. A royal flush.
The best of the farm in the city, or the fruits of their labors
On a cross-country trip last summer, Susan and Joe Woods stopped at a dozen or more oil-and-vinegar tasting rooms across several western states. It was a big thing out there, and the energy reminded them of gourmet coffee and craft beer movement they'd witnessed when they lived in Seattle in the mid 1990s — a scene that inspired them, upon returning to Belfast in 2001, to buy a building on Main Street and make plans to bring some of those products back East.
Over a decade and three children later, they've circled back to make good on the dream with their specialty food shop Vinolio. The core of the business, slated to open in late May or early June, will be wine, olive oil and vinegar — the name derives from the Italian words for the first two and hints at the English for the third — presented with an attention to details not present in supermarket varieties of the same.
Vinolio will also stock enough complementary ingredients to make a variety of great meals, which according to Susan Woods is easier and more enjoyable when you get the basics right.
"You learn that when food is very high quality you don't need much to change the flavor," she said.
If the idea of fussing over varieties of olive oil or vinegar still seems foreign, Vinolio will have a tasting room where you can find out first hand. In the meantime, think back to when there were three beer companies and all coffee came in a can.
Beyond the Sea, the gift and book shop that occupied the future home of Vinolio for several years has moved to Lincolnville Beach. And in a blast from the past, the Woods are making their wine selections with the help of a sommelier from The Clown, the York-based wine, art and antique business that ran a Belfast branch for several years out of the same storefront.
Maine Farmland Trust made major renovations to its Belfast headquarters over the winter, gutting the three story building, adding a dormer in the back and an elevator. Offices of the nonprofit, which aims to preserve arable land for agriculture, now occupy at least part of every floor, and the original storefront art gallery now extends to the second floor where works from a group of artists who have shown at the gallery in the past will be displayed and rotated periodically.
The ground floor will continue to feature new works of agriculture-themed art. A show of original works by renowned illustrator Dahlov Ipcar are on display until June 4.
The Belfast Co-op is operating the concession stand in City Park this year out of the shed that was previously The Spot. The Co-op Grill opened on Mother's Day with a menu that will likely please park visitors accustomed to hot dogs and chips and Co-op patrons looking for something a little different. Like the Co-op's downtown store which is open the same hours and almost every day of the year, the Co-op grill also has operating hours that are easy to remember: 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. every day.
Allen Insurance and Financial opened a branch office in Belfast in April expanding north from Camden and Rockland. According to Mallory Follett, of Owls Head, who came up from Camden to help kick-start the new office, the Belfast branch includes the company's full slate of insurance and financial planning services (financial services were previously only available in Camden).
Follet said the company has had clients in Belfast all along but opened the office here in part for the convenience of existing customers, but also as a way to open the door to new business.
"We love walk-ins, so don't be scared to come in a get a quote," Follett said. "We like to be a part of the community."
Other new businesses in the downtown include Coastal Babies, located upstairs at 80 Main Street, and another children's store rumored to be named Honey Bees that is taking shape in the same Church Street building as Nautical Scribe Books. Reny's Plaza got a bit of its mojo back after the departure of Mr. Paperback and Bell the Cat with a new healthy and affordable take-out courtesy of Scallions, (read a full article on the business here), and Belfast Jewelry, which recently relocated from downtown.
The Belfast Harbor Walk broke ground this spring and is currently in full-scale "big dig" mode. The path is expected to be walkable by early summer. Meanwhile, the city is continuing work on a planned rail-to-trail conversion for a two mile stretch from the old Upper Bridge Crossing to City Point. Current plans suggest a fundraising drive in collaboration with Camden-based conservancy Coastal Mountains Land Trust will kick off this Summer.
Brooks Preservation Society, which operated excursion rail service on that particular stretch of track is moving out to City Point Station this year, and has expanded its special trips to include a chocolate train and a wine train, which according to BPS executive director Joe Feero, may also include — at the vintner's request — pizza.
The local events calendar is booked solid this year, including the return of the Maine Celtic Celebration, Please Be Seated and other attractions from past years. Belfast Creative Coalition is launching its Belfast Area Farm and Arts Trail program this year. The organization also arguably keeps the most comprehensive calendar of arts-and-creative-economy-related events.
We realize we've only scratched the surface, but there's a start.
Of course the biggest event of any Belfast summer is the infusion of fresh energy that comes with the arrival of the city's seasonal residents and visitors. If that's you, welcome back. And sorry about the "snowbat" thing. We couldn't resist.
Ethan Andrews can be reached at email@example.com