If you feel the need to get out and enjoy a mid-winter day trip, a drive to Gardiner is a good experience. It has a pedestrian-friendly downtown that is chock-full of historic buildings, interesting shops, and inviting restaurants along its brick sidewalks.
As soon as you enter one of the several locally owned stores and eateries, you will receive a warm welcome. Gardiner has a great close-knit community spirit.
Inside 1 Brunswick Trading, Mary Ann Johnson greets customers with genuine friendliness. She co-owns the cigar, antiques, and keepsakes store with her husband, Peter. They have lived in Gardiner since 1978 and raised their son, Peter Jr., here.
“Peter was a history teacher, and I was a healthcare worker,” Mary Ann explains, of their history before 1 Brunswick Trading.
The shop used to house several restaurants, and the couple incorporated a former bar. “The bar now serves as a counter accommodating three display cases and a tablet point-of-service system. The bar back that once held liquor bottles now provides space for displaying antiques,” Mary Ann explained.
Over the years, the couple amassed an impressive collection of antiques from all over Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. They attended many auctions and shops along the way to build their collection of paintings, portraits, glassware, rare coins, golden thimbles, fine china, and jewelry.
There are also shelves of old books dating back to the 1800s, vintage bottles, broaches, and pins at the front counter. This counter was fashioned from a bar that once occupied the former restaurant that previously called 1 Brunswick Trading home.
She held up a collection of coin silver spoons from Saco that were created by Twombly and Smith between 1850 and 1860. “We also have two beautiful Boston coin silver preserve spoons with ornate bowls,” Mary Ann said.
“Give a gift of old,” is the store’s motto, and one that Mary Ann hopes that her fellow Mainers will embrace.
While it may be easier and more convenient to order various items via Amazon or Facebook Marketplace, Mary Ann believes there is something special about owning a genuine antique. An antique bottle might have graced the table of a Maine family more than 100 years ago. An antique necklace or pin might have been treasured by its owner and worn when strolling through town on the arm of a beloved beau or husband.
In addition to their antiques collection, the couple also sells premium rolled cigars provided by Peter Johnson Jr.’s company, Tatuaje, which is Spanish for “tattoo.”
Mary Ann explained that Peter Jr. has worked as an award-winning cigar designer since 2003. 1 Brunswick Trading sells cigars rolled in Nicaragua, Miami, and throughout Latin America. Mary Ann said Peter Jr. placed 25th in Cigar Aficionado magazine’s Top 25 list of cigar designers, and he continues to place in that list every year.
Right across the street from the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center is Niche, Inc., an eclectic music store that sells everything from classic vinyl albums from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to more current releases from Maine artists. Jason Goucher and Samantha Robinson have owned their store for five years and have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic as best they could.
“I used to do live music, but we had to stop because of COVID,” Jason said. Their last live show was in March (2020), and it was a very popular happening. “We sold out of our last show,” he added, recalling that they had people waiting outside who watched the show from Main Street.
The store had to close its doors for three months last spring. It reopened full time in August. Thankfully, Jason said they still see their share of customers from all age groups who shop for popular games and rare Record Store Day vinyl presses of rock, jazz and folk albums.
Jason said Niche sells instruments and sound equipment on consignment, along with new guitars, mini-banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles. They also sell used drum sets, electric guitars, bass guitars, and other pieces to support budding musicians from the Gardiner area.
Supporting the local Maine music scene is a priority for Jason. Vinyl records of Maine Indie Folk artist Lauren Crosby’s newest album, Sheepscot Valley Enchantress, are for sale. The store sells dozens of CDs of other established Maine artists, like the Ghost of Paul Revere from Saco.
Despite some of the setbacks that Gardiner has suffered from the pandemic, the tight-knit business community is hopeful about its future prospects. For example, the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center is undergoing a renovation to expand from 125 to 400 seats in 2021. The city also has new $12.6 million bridge that will bring traffic directly from the Maine Turnpike, down Route 201 over the Cobbosseecontee Stream to Main Street.
Jason pointed out that Main Street has some great restaurants, like the Blind Pig, and two craft breweries: Jokers & Rogues, and Bateau Brewing. The city has a beautiful waterfront park located on the banks of the Kennebec River that will be enhanced as part of the new bridge project.
The Gardiner Main Street Association continues to make inroads toward transforming Gardiner from a small city close to the state capitol of Augusta to its own destination. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of booming,” Jason said.
Fueling Gardiner’s optimism is the willingness of new entrepreneurs to open new businesses during this difficult year. Meghan Carves and April Tourtelotte have known each other ever since Meghan was a teenager. April, who is originally from Texas, met Meghan’s mother, Ruby, while the two of them were waitressing in Phippsburg 16 years ago. Ruby and April talked about how they wanted to open their own bakery and breakfast and lunch place one day.
Sadly, Ruby passed away before she could realize her dream. But April and Meghan decided to open Ruby’s Place in September. The woman who both of them view as their mother would be so proud.
Their original plan was to find a location in Augusta. “But we just felt like Gardiner had more potential than the Augusta area,” Meghan said. When a Mexican restaurant decided to relocate a few doors down, Meghan and April decided to make their dream a reality.
Inside, the wonderful smells of fresh baked bagels, Focaccia bread, and sweet rolls fill the air, soothing the senses of carefully masked customers. Meghan explained they make everything in their bakery except for the doughnuts and the turnovers.
“Everybody is really excited to have a bakery here in Gardiner,” Meghan said. “We’re looking forward to making pies to order, rolls, and cornbread.”
April enjoys the fact that their customers can see them prepare breakfast sandwiches with a cast iron skillet. “It warms your soul.”
With the pleasures of baking, serving their customers, and enjoying their friendship, April believes she has the best of all worlds. “I get to be in a kitchen cooking with my best friend from Monday to Saturday. What could be better than that?”