The Grand City Variety store closed a little shy of two months into the start of my freshman year. I went there once to buy thumbtacks and then it was out of business. I had little opportunity to appreciate the institution, which sold everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to brassieres, but I did have a good deal of time to think about its absence as the storefront sat vacant for the next three years.
Coming from a "planned community" in suburban Colorado where independent businesses never had a chance to develop (local commerce is a stamped-out pattern of Target, Burger King and Jamba Juice laden strip malls), I've thoroughly appreciated Brunswick's Maine Street during my time at Bowdoin. Nearly every storefront save the banks, Domino's and Hannaford is locally owned and operated. But the flavor of the street and town in general has changed significantly since Grand City shut its doors.
On that same spot now sits Cool as a Moose, the latest in a chain of Maine-themed novelty stores that sell T-shirts, postcards and lobster toys to tourists. Amtrak lines will soon link the town to Portland, Boston and beyond with the new station complex that has sprung up along the track. Numerous businesses have turned over including Red Dragon Toys, 111 Maine Catering, The Market Basket, Provisions, Midcoast Multi-Sports and, most recently, Frosty's Donuts. And the protracted closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station saw the departure of some 3,000 community members. Naturally, the town must adapt in order to survive. But when most of us only spend a brief four years here, it's easy to be passive and accept such changes without considering Brunswick's sustained identity.
Strangely, Brunswick's history appears to be best preserved on the walls of the Pizza Hut in Cook's Corner, where one can find sepia-tinted photos, documents and other town memorabilia from the late 1800s onwards. Highlights include a clapboard Tontine Mall, workers leaving the Fort Andross mill, the original Cook's lobster shack, and Lyndon B. Johnson leaning on the counter of the Topsham Dairy Queen. But those days have long since passed.
Over the last century, the town has been sustained by everything from textiles to iron to military operations, and with the closure of the naval base, Brunswick is transitioning yet again. Cool as a Moose is only the latest in a series of recently-opened boutiques and restaurants aimed at new visitors to Brunswick. Lola's Taqueria, Pura Vida Salon, Lilee's Public House and Flipside Pizza represent new-wave counterparts to Danny's, The Looking Glass, Brunswick Diner and the now defunct Brunswick House of Pizza.
The recent trend of gentrification trend anticipates the opening of the railroad in 2012, which may make Brunswick a bedroom community destination for tourists and retirees alike, both factions heralded by the completions of the 52-room Inn at Brunswick Station and the expansion of Thornton Oaks Retirement Living Community, respectively.
It's not a bad thing. Many post-industrial or post-military towns do not have such options and thus become severely depressed. And as a college student, tourist-oriented changes have added a great variety to local dining and shopping. Yet I fear there will be more casualties among downtown institutions before the transition period is over.
The 1908 photo of Brunswick shows 128 Maine St.—once Grand City and now Cool As A Moose—lofting over the modest thoroughfare with a spired bell tower. It was then the Brunswick Town Hall. Sentimentalize all I want, the day is coming when the Maine Street of today will look just as foreign as the one on the wall of the Pizza Hut.