Portland, Maine, gets a lot of international visitors, especially from cruise ships that stop in the port. So it wasn't a surprise when a man from England walked into our store there recently, along with a crowd from a cruise ship. What was unusual, though, was what he said.
"Is this Fred Danforth's store?" he said, and Denise, the store manager, said yes, it was. She saw tears form in the man's eyes as he told her that he used to hand-blow the glass chimneys for Fred's oil lamps. For years, he and Fred worked together handcrafting the parts for Danforth's beautiful oil lamps. He never actually met Fred in person, though. He only worked with him from across the pond. This was his first time seeing the lamps in person.
It was a total coincidence that he found the store. He hadn't been looking for it, but rather had just wandered in, and found a piece of his own history there.
"This is a special place," said Denise, a Portland native whose grandfather laid the cobblestones on the town's main street. "We meet people from all over the world. Jackson Brown was here once. Kevin Bacon was in town last weekend. I saw Rod Stewart walking by the store once, but he didn't come in, which was too bad. You just never know who you'll meet."
DOWNTOWN PORTLAND: A SENSE OF PLACE
If you haven't been to Portland, imagine a little fishing town tucked into the rocky Maine coast. Barely a stone's throw from the shoreline begins the heart of the historic district, complete with centuries-old buildings and streets bearing the original cobblestone. If you stand in the threshold of the Danforth store, you can't quite see the Atlantic, but it's only about a hundred feet away, so you can certainly smell it.
Portland is home to hundreds of working watermen who bring in their catch each day to supply the many local restaurants in Portland. And while the town has held onto its local and commercial fishing roots, it's also made a name for itself as a beloved tourist destination--and it does a fantastic job of melding the two.
"There's a boat company here called the Lucky Catch," said Denise, "where you can go out and catch your own lobster. You learn all about lobsters while you're out there, and you enjoy the day on the water, and then you can take your lobster to a restaurant nearby and eat it for dinner.
"There's J's Oyster Bar across the street, another local favorite. It opened over fifty years ago; it's one of the oldest local restaurant bars in Portland, and it's the first woman-owned restaurant. A lot of people assume 'J' is a man, but she's a woman named Janice."
One of the charms of old historic towns like this one is the stories, or as some would say, folklore.
"We have a seal called Andre the Sea who used to come to Booth Bay Harbor," said Denise. "Every summer for twenty years he would swim to Maine from the warmer waters and visit the watermen and the beachgoers. Everyone knew him."
Right next to Danforth is a unique company called Sea Bags, another artisanal company that handcrafts bags out of old sails from sailboats. Dimillo's Floating Boathouse is a great stop for local seafood, though you really can't go wrong with any of the cuisine in downtown Portland.
DANFORTH'S COASTAL VIBES
Danforth Pewter has been in Portland for only about seven years. Located right on Commercial Street, it was one of our first stores outside of Vermont, and we built it up from scratch—that is, it wasn't a remnant of any other pewter business (like in the case of our Williamsburg, Virginia store, where we stepped into the well-worn shoes of Shirley Pewter). When Denise interviewed, the store was still being built out inside a building over 200 years old. "You can tell by looking at the ceilings," she said. "This building has seen a lot of businesses. It was an old clothing store, and now it has AirBnBs on the higher floors."
Denise has been the manager since the start, and she comes to Danforth with a lot of experience—mostly int sports merchandising. Her resume boasts a lot of recognizable names from Athlete's Foot to Decathlon to MVP and Sports Authority. "Those companies were so large, you were just a number there," she said. "Corporations just don't have that personal touch for their employees. When I interviewed for Danforth, I didn't know if I wanted to go back into retail and managements. But Andy, the retail manager at the time, and he talked me into it.
"Now I love working here. I love Danforth. They treat you like you matter. They let you run your store. There's creative freedom for merchandising and coming up with new ideas. It's been great so far, and Danforth just belongs in Portland, especially with all our coastal-themed gifts. People love to buy them—the keychains, ornaments, oil lamps, of course—as souvenirs from their trip to the Maine coast. Everyone who comes here can see how special it is."
Last year, a very special "employee" came to work in our Portland store...Pepere teh Pyranees! Denise's gentle giant loves to greet visitors and tell them about the joys of owning a handspun oil lamp. (His favorite Danforth item, of course, is the Best Friends Frame, but the Lobster Keyring isn't far behind.
Whether you're a Portland native, a longtime visitor, or you're planning your first trip there soon, we hope you'll stop in and say hi!
Happy travels, and thank you for keeping small, local businesses in mind when you're browsing for gifts and souvenirs. Your support truly makes a difference in keeping historic downtowns like Portland alive and thriving.
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