From trolley stop to the 21st century, the “South Windham Landmark” concludes 107 years and four generations of the Sawyer family.
A handwritten sign on the storefront window of Sawyer’s Variety in the Little Falls neighborhood of Gorham/South Windham announceed, simply and sadly, the end of a familiar and beloved institution; patronized by generations of residents who needed a few groceries, a cup of coffee or conversation.
“If there’s anything you wanted, they had it,” said long-time South Windham resident Dave Tobin.
The aging wood frame building “on the Gorham side of the bridge in South Windham,” as many residents referred to the location, has a long and storied history. Founded by Cora Sawyer in 1910, it was known as much for being the neighborhood gathering spot for local news, gossip and storytelling, as it was for the general merchandise sold there.
Tobin said the original building may have been moved there, possibly from Windham. It served as the “waiting room” for travelers using the Portland-Westbrook-Windham trolley before the age of buses. “Originally it was supposed to go into South Windham, but it never got all the way there,” according to Tobin.
Co-owners Kelly Finocchietti and her brother Craig Sawyer said the times are changing and the business was getting to be “a little too much.”
“It feels like the local ma and pa stores are dying,” said Kelly, who has worked at the store for over 20 years. She cited difficulties with vendors who now require minimum merchandise orders far above what small variety stores can handle. And, she added that some have stopped deliveries outside their normal route. She said a major construction project on Main Street/Gray Road in front of the store several years ago caused a precipitous drop in customers, “And we never really got that business back. Closing is bitter sweet. We’ve had a hard time letting go,” said Kelly, referring to the closing. “I get kind of emotional (thinking about it). I locked the door for the last time on January 3. Then I (hid) behind the counter for a while just to recover.”
Tears emerged again as she reminisced about earlier times and the subsequent closure. What’s next? Kelly said she hopes to find something where she won’t have to work weekends. Craig has found work in Windham.
Tobin said he remembers Cora Sawyer, who opened the store almost 107 years ago, still running the store in the 1930s. “Cora, like everyone else back then, was frugal. She sold peanuts by the pound. When she’d weighed them out, if it was just a little bit over (the requested weight) she’d snap a peanut in half and eat it.” Eventually, her son, Hall Sawyer, Sr. ran the business until the 1950s. By 1956, Hall Jr. had taken over and hired John Mayberry and Harry Ingells to build an addition, nearly doubling the store space, and seemingly tripling the amount of merchandise. A sign on the store front advertised: Pipes, Ammunition, Clocks & Watches, Popcorn and Tintex; the latter item being a brand name for a fabric dye used heavily during World War II. Tobin remembers mothers coloring non-burlap grain bags and converting them into clothing.
Arlo Guthrie’s lyric, “You can get anything you want…” would indeed have been a fit description for the goods and wares at Sawyer’s Variety in the mid-20th century. Family members recall everything from fresh garden vegetables and homemade jams to clothing, penny candy, popcorn and ice cream.