"Hold on, let me just get my laptop," I say. I've escaped to South Harpswell with a full bag of laundry and my running sneakers, only to feel the pull of a story a couple of married Maine transplants are more than willing to recount.
Thus, my stay with family friends turns into an interview.
"So, tell me about Renys," I say with a flourish, as we finish off the last of the pie from the farmers' market.
Our coffee cups leave light imprints of their symmetry on the table and we sink back in our chairs, enjoying the post-dinner hum.
I look up from my computer. Cheryl looks over at Malcolm. Together they consider the trail of crumbs on his flannel shirt, and then the anecdotes begin.
"It's Malcolm's favorite store," Cheryl explains. "It's the only one he shops at."
"You can get lots of things," her husband interjects, "like reading glasses for $2.99."
"You go in and buy a handful of reading glasses, a fistful, because you're always sitting on them and losing them," she adds.
I picture the triumph of gleaming fists. "What else have you found at Renys?" I coax.
We are speaking of the chain of department stores exclusive to Maine, which got its start in the trunk of a Hudson in 1949 in Damariscotta. There is something quintessential about the chain that speaks volumes about the state and its people.
"I've gotten suntan lotion cheap," Mal starts, "of course, it was winter."
I ask them about their best find, their holy grail, their...alarm clock?
"The one in our bedroom shines so much light from the digital thing that we can see where Jenny is on the floor." (Jenny is a first-rate golden retriever of L.L. Bean caliber. She is curled by the back door.) "That's probably why no one wanted it in the first place," Cheryl concludes.
A few days later, I call my cousin Nibby in Rockport to discuss Renys.
"Scott!" she calls to her husband, "what is the best 'find' we ever had at Renys?"
Garden tools, cheap olive oil, and the centerpieces for their wedding.
I think back to that wedding reception: Roasted root vegetables, endless circles of contra dancing strangers, and—at the center of each table—flowers potted in green Renys cups, which have been reincarnated as Scott and Nibby's drinking glasses.
But I'm not finished yet, so I talk to another local, for whom Renys provides the spice of life.
"You can get Rayes Mustard," says Greg, my sometimes supervisor at the library circulation desk. He says that you can get "almost every kind they make at Renys for a dollar less" than at the grocery store.
I ask Greg the question: "Do you have a favorite Renys?"
He grins and runs his hands behind his ears. "I think a lot of people like the Bath one, I kind of like the Gardiner one—it's a toss-up. The Damariscotta is kind of overwhelming."
Ah, the Damariscotta store. Cheryl did not mince words about the Damariscotta location: "If someone hollered fire, I definitely wouldn't get out."
This branch, the birthplace of Renys, encompasses multiple buildings divided among food, furnishings and clothes. According to Cheryl, the women's section is particularly chaotic.
"As you went between the racks, the clothing kind of went along with you, whether you selected it or not."
As it is, Cheryl and Mal prefer the Bath store. Mal brought up the store's annual sale on the first Saturday of hunting season, during which loyal Renys shoppers rush the door at 5 a.m. to secure items they've scoped out days in advance.
Bath's Starlight Café has been known to give a free breakfast to shoppers who show up in their pajamas and curlers, and who can refuse a free breakfast?Although that first Saturday in November is swiftly approaching, there is a more pressing reason to indulge my Renys kick—a new branch in Topsham.
The closing of Grand City in Brunswick left a downtown void that Alida, another circulation desk supervisor, hoped Renys would fill. Renys, worried about proximity to Bath, chose to open in the Topsham Fair Mall where Village Candle used to be (a former tenant of Fort Andross).
The Topsham store elicits a nearly universal reaction from my pack of Renys connoisseurs.
Cheryl sniffs that it's too clean, too orderly. Alida (who prefers the Gardiner Renys) says that it has "too much stuff and less character." While Greg, perhaps the most forgiving, attributes the loss of Renys signature "funky feeling" to the modern space the store occupies.
I think I must go there to see for myself. When I drive up to Topsham on an overcast day, the first thing that strikes me is the sign. It's much more prominent than I remember from my trips to the Bridgton store in my camp counselor days.
"Renys—A Maine Adventure," it proclaims, like the long-lost half-sibling of a Disney World franchise. Inside, the acrid smell of new rainboots greets me and rows upon rows of Carhartt flannels endure the glare of "modern" light. I paw through racks of tank tops and squeak past lobster-patterned potholders.
Then, target spotted: a stuffed bear, whose electronic antics I trigger before carrying it to the checkout counter—still squirming and singing David Hasselhoff, "I'm hooked on a feeling, I'm high on believin' that you're in love with me..."
As Cheryl said of what brings her back to Renys again and again, "It's the thing you were looking all over for, or you didn't know it existed." She gestured toward the Renys furniture on the deck, where a hollowed out buoy—now a birdhouse—swung gently in the salt air, before adding, "You hoped it existed."