Nestled downtown on Mill Street, the store at first sight doesn’t look like much. With its dark blue shingles, windowed facade and unassuming demeanor, it almost seems out of place among the many eateries and bars that have become synonymous with Orono. But that, says store owner Roberta Bradson, is what sets The Store Ampersand apart from its peers.
What started as a small health food store in the location of what is now Thai Orchid’s bar space “evolved into something else every time,” Roberta Bradson, who, with her husband John Bradson, is the third owner of the store, said.
Roberta and John Bradson purchased the business from its previous, and second owner, Karna Olson — who moved the store to its current location — in 1995.
“My husband and I ran the taproom at Pat’s Pizza. We did that for 20 years,” Roberta Bradson said. “Our kids started getting older and we decided the nighttime job had to turn into a daytime job.”
That daytime job led to a flourishing business for many years. With many different foci, ranging from niche health food products — Roberta Bradson called it “granola” — to specialty items and gifts, and now with a focus on coffee, there was something for everyone.
But things changed in 2004, when a flood tore through the shop’s lower portion, in which all its gift items were sold.
The flood was “almost a blessing at the time,” Roberta Bradson said. “That was time a lot of stores started closing.”
As the town began to develop, the Bradsons began losing suppliers and were forced to narrow their focus to draw people into the shop.
“We’ve gone from being a health food store, grocery store to really just a convenience store,” Roberta Bradson said.
And, as the town changed, so did its people. Fewer townspeople began coming into the store as Bangor and Old Town began to grow. Surrounding stores closed and were transformed into bars. Businesses around them grew and grew, and the Bradsons struggled to keep up.
“We lost a lot of daytime businesses here. Things were getting more nighttime. We started getting rid of most of our employees and it was just turned into a family affair. But we still have our sights on bringing all that back,” Roberta Bradson said.
After a $15,000 renovation, the store and its owners are continually finding ways to draw in the townspeople.
“Having my daughter come back has been a blessing because she is reinventing it … She brings back a new energy,” Roberta Bradson said.
Daughter of Roberta and John Bradson, Emilia Bradson graduated from Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smiths, N.Y. in 2010. After five years of living in her college town, Emilia Bradson moved back to her hometown this past spring, when the renovations began.
Emilia Bradson played a large role in organizing the town-wide trick-or-treating event that occurred on Halloween, in which seven businesses participated in various activities, from handing out candy to hosting haunted houses.
Both Bradsons agreed on the importance of promoting town-wide activities. In recent years, the Bradsons have seen a loss of Orono town culture.
“[The town is] always trying to include the university. We’re not the university. We’re our own separate little selves,” Roberta Bradson said. “We want [students] to come, we embrace them, but we don’t have to depend on them.”
Roberta Bradson expressed the constant catering to the university often harms businesses in the town. Often, restaurants are pushed and businesses grow, but smaller shops, like Ampersand, are left behind.
“I think that this is just turning into a giant town of restaurants. There’s no reason to come to Orono for any other time other than to eat or drink, and I think that’s really going to hurt Orono in the future,” Emilia Robertson said.
“You want to see the day businesses here because that’s what brings people downtown,” Roberta Bradson said. “We were devastated when the hardware store closed. Saturday used to be such a big morning. Everybody would come into town. They would go to the farmers’ market, they’d go to the hardware store, they’d come here … We still do okay on Saturday but it would be so much nicer if there was more of a draw.”
Roberta Bradson refers to Park’s Hardware and General Store, which stood across the street from The Store Ampersand and closed in 2013. Coupled with the exit of Metropolitan Soul in 2013, as well, it seemed many retail businesses felt pressured to move to Bangor where they had other retail shops in company.
“The people in Orono talk a lot about how they really want to be this quaint little small-town community, but I really think that our proximity to Bangor hurts us a lot,” Emilia Bradson said. “We won’t be that little small-town community because people are always going to have that option to get it for cheaper or get more options, more variety, if they just drive six miles down the road. Although there’s a lot of talk about how they want to support local and they want to support their community, they’re still going to Bangor.”
“There’s so many people in Orono that don’t make a presence downtown at all, and I think that really hurts downtown,” Emilia Bradson added. “There’s 10,000 kids at that university. Where are they? If I’m even just sitting here gazing out the window, I do not see university students.”
Even through difficult times, the Bradsons remain cautiously optimistic about their business.
“We’re very optimistic, so we say [business is] doing okay. I think we feel pretty optimistic. Sometimes we get really down in the dumps. We haven’t been down in the dumps in a long time,” Roberta Bradson said as she weighed a customer’s bunch of bananas and waved goodbye.
“If John and I weren’t willing to work 84 hours a week, which we do, this store wouldn’t be here. And I don’t think you’ll find many people who will do that, but that’s what we have to do,” she said.
And why do they do it? They haven’t lost sight of their mission.
“We’re rooted. We’re very strongly community-minded. I think [our roots are] pretty deep. It’s going to be pretty hard to pull these up,” Roberta Bradson said. “You know, we struggle, but we don’t give up. We have a lot of faith in this community.”
That faith is what has allowed the Bradsons to expand their reach in recent years. Although many people still prefer online shopping or going to big-box stores, the Bradsons have focused their efforts on drawing the locals back to their shop.
“I think our new focus is that we’re trying to change [current shopping patterns]. Emilia’s putting a lot out there on Facebook and talking to a lot more people in the town office.”
Between the success of the town-wide trick-or-treating event, in which Emilia was a pivotal player, the family has participated in new town-wide events and begun hosting wine tastings. The owners opened their doors for a wine tasting during Orono’s Artsapalooza event in June, in which several businesses featured local artists and performers and in which Mill Street was cordoned off for a town block party. Most recently the Bradsons held a wine tasting on Nov. 12, with about 40 people in attendance. Another tasting will be held this Thursday, Dec. 10.
The store will also be open and will feature a float for Orono’s “Light Up the Night” event, Monday, Dec. 7.
When asked if they think the store and the town can return to their former glory, the Bradsons expressed hope, but still think change needs to occur on a community level. Emilia Bradson says that community members continually want more shops, but don’t utilize their services.
“I think it’s up to the community members to say ‘this is what we want,’ but they have to support it. That’s a huge problem in Orono is that we want, we want, we want but we won’t support it once it comes,” Emilia Bradson said. “We want the option of it there for that one time we use it out of the year. But then if it’s not there, we get all upset, but we didn’t support it.”