Your Small Town Gift Shop!
The Sign of the Red Geranium
In his History of Camden and Rockport Reuel Robinson says in 1892 “Camden sustained the most disastrous conflagration in its history. The fire started in the lofty wooden block of Geo. H. Cleveland” on Main Street. Most of the downtown business district was destroyed, and once the smoke had cleared and the town fathers had time to consider the matter, they decided to rebuild in brick rather than wood. However, apparently George Cleveland, in whose three-story building the fire had started, did not wait for such a decision, because almost before the smoke had cleared, he was busy putting up another wooden building on his property, and he soon opened a store there to meet the needs of a community suddenly deprived of most of its normal sources of supplies.
The business directory for 1903 in Jack Williams’ History of Camden lists the George H. Cleveland Grocery
on Main Street, presumably in his new building, but in December of 1910 Mr. Henry Opici opened the Village Shop in
the Cleveland Building. It was a confectionery and tobacco store and “was advertising its presence on Main Street with
a new slogan “The Sign of the Red Geranium,” and Jack says, “that red geranium continues to the present day! (1989)”
I drove by there recently (2007) and saw no such red geranium, but the Village Shop is still there, alive and well,
with a very nice new sign done by Mort Strom, with a sailing ship on it,
which is very appropriate for today’s Camden.
Whatever is on the sign, the Village Shop is one of the longest enduring businesses on Main Street, and certainly the oldest gift shop.
In fact, it seems to have been a forerunner of gift shops in Camden and perhaps in the mid-coast area. In May of 1914 Miss Jesse Hosmer bought the Village Shop from George Cleveland and installed large plate-glass windows wherein she could attract the sidewalk trade. In October of that same year Miss Alice Knowlton set up a Handicraft Shop next door to Miss Hosmer, and I don’t know the facts of the matter, but it would seem that eventually the two shops might have merged. In a time before a vigorous tourist trade, it must have required much creative ingenuity for such a shop to succeed. Mr. Opici might have been able to enlighten us on that subject, but Jesse Hosmer did succeed and with her new plate glass windows to attract the summer colony, she was able to bring in someone to help in the summer.
Miss Bertha Clason started teaching English at the high school in 1909, and very well may have known Edna St Vincent Millay, who had just graduated from Camden High School that spring. At any rate, when Jesse Hosmer was looking for help, Bertha found a good fit for a summer job. She was eventually taken in as a partner with Jesse Hosmer, and both were friends of Miss Millay, who would often stop there for a visit when she was in town.
As I said, Jesse Hosmer had to have some creative vision to succeed in that business, and when she took over the store, she progressed from “tobacco and confections” to finding other items to draw in the sidewalk trade. By the time I was in school and had an interest in school supplies and the like, the village shop had a complete line of school supplies, notebooks, pens and pencils, office supplies, and art supplies in addition to confections, but no tobacco.
When Helen and I got married, The Village Shop was the place to pick out your china pattern for wedding presents, and to get your stationery for announcement and thank you notes.
Another interesting thought is this. In 1921 there was a fire in Mr. I. Nee Lee’s laundry on Main Street that did quite a bit of damage to his place and to Mr. David Langman’s tailor shop next door. Jack’s history says Mr. Lee then moved his laundry to Bay View Street. We have stories about this Chinese man in Camden, but very little solid information except that he had a laundry, but more interesting are the several quite good oil paintings of scenic views around Camden by Mr. Lee. Apparently he also had to have some creative vision to make a go of it in Camden. One would suppose that he, like the Village Shop, had to court the deeper pockets of the summer colony to make ends meet.
In another place I learn that Jesse Hosmer set up her fire works department in the Maloney Block on Bay View Street in 1916 and “did a thriving business.” In another place I learn that she moved her fire works business to the old laundry building on Bay View Street.
So my speculation is that maybe Jesse Hosmer and Mr. Lee worked together to prosper on the fire works trade. In those days, and even up into the forties, the fire works business immediately brought to mind China as the source, although in later years South Carolina took over that role. Perhaps Mr. I. Nee Lee still had contacts in China that would make him a profitable partner in the fire works business.
When I had the Candy Shop on Route 1, the Village Shop was the place to go for bookkeeping and office supplies. I remember the time I was in there looking for a new stapler and stapled my thumb. I felt kind of dumb as I pulled the staple out and hoped I wasn’t going to bleed all over. It’s a wonder I didn’t get tetanus or something.
In those days Milford Payson had a little office desk tucked into the back corner of the store, and he was the man to see for Bay Chamber Concert tickets. He was also the treasurer for The Vesper Hill Chapel Foundation.
Now, with so much competition in the gift shop business, and specialty shops competing in many areas of
merchandise, it still requires a creative vision to survive, but the Village Shop still serves Camden under the
ownership and watchful eye of Alyce and Mark Boynton, and it still has that old down east atmosphere that has attracted so
many over the years. They still have the office supplies and confections, but check on their custom embroidery business
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