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Mountain Home Magazine

Main Street, USA

Jul 10, 2017 12:16PM

Dr. Gale Largey, a retired sociology professor from Mansfield University and a long-time Wellsboro resident, compiled two books about this borough: Life in Wellsboro 1880-1920, and Life in Wellsboro 1920-1960 (I was one of Gale’s students way back when while he was working on the second book and I helped with it, so I’m a little biased). There are hardcover copies of each in the Green Free Library’s Pennsylvania Room, and they are well worth a perusal. Each time I look through them I am amazed at how much Wellsboro has changed, and how much it hasn’t.

To wit: Around the turn of the last century (and how weird is it to say that?), Wellsboro had two banks, five hotels, twelve grocery stores “of the first class” and three lesser ones, four meat markets, four clothing stores, two drug stores, two shoe stores, two jewelry stores, two notion stores, two restaurants, two sporting goods stores, two music stores, two harness shops, one art store, one haberdashery, two farmers’ supply stores, four tailor establishments, two Chinese laundries, six barber shops, one bakery, one candy store, three newspapers, at least three insurance and real estate firms, six churches, plumbing/steam-fitting shops, a wool-carding mill, a glass factory, two breweries, two cigar factories (we grew quite a bit of tobacco around here at one point), a tannery, the jail and county buildings, and two public watering troughs (the kind for horses, not humans). Of course not all of these enterprises were right on Main Street, which wasn’t paved, by the way, until 1909, fourteen years after the spelling changed from Wellsborough to Wellsboro. And the boulevards, also by the way, weren’t built because someone thought they would be a pretty place to put gaslights and Christmas trees and add ambiance to the downtown. They were installed to save money on the bricks used for paving.

Borough residents are typically a thrifty lot.

A Lunchtime Grammar Grappler

Technically, Brad Goodwin’s Red Skillet gourmet-ish food trailer is not on Main Street. The sandwich board sign is—well, it’s on the sidewalk between 89 and 99 Main—but the truck itself is tucked in about seventy-five feet from Main Street proper. Considering that some buildings here have housed the same businesses for generations, the Red Skillet, at age four, is a real newbie to Wellsboro’s downtown, though there are a couple of other food trucks in the borough, up on East Avenue. It raised some eyebrows initially. It was different, you know? But people and their eating habits adjusted, and now it seems to be a very welcome addition to Wellsboro’s summertime dining options. On a recent day when I went over to get some food, the lovely woman taking orders called me by name and then came right out and asked me—not what I wanted for lunch, but what did I think about the Harvard comma.

Now if you don’t happen to be a grammar geek, you may not know that the Harvard comma, also called an Oxford or serial comma, is a comma placed before a coordinating conjunction, usually and or or, in a series of three or more terms. Opinions vary on its usefulness. Well! It seemed that a press release she had written had included a Harvard comma, one that someone had removed prior to publication. Anyway, she was quite aggrieved to say that removal had changed the meaning of what she had written in a most aggravating way.

While I was waiting for my lunch, she and I had a brief, and extremely enjoyable, discussion about the virtues of said punctuation, a conversation which then morphed into one about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The White Album, and, if I recall correctly, Prince and his untimely demise. A couple of guys waiting to order chimed in, and, I have to say, I was a little sad when my food was ready and I was obliged to head back to work. Only in Wellsboro, right?

89 Main Street—Garrisons Men’s Shop

It was shaping up to be a busy afternoon at Garrisons Men’s Shop (there is a nice selection of women’s clothes there these days, too). It was Al Garrison’s first day back on the job after a buying trip out west. The store is always in good hands when he’s not around—his assistant, Rob Hilfiger, has been a staple here for twenty-five years—but there’s some catch-up involved when you’re the owner and you’ve been away. So there was that. Then a young, slightly anxious-looking man showed up for a final fit on his wedding tux. The big day was close and he admitted he just wanted it to be over and he didn’t really care what he was wearing. Another young man came in to pick up an overcoat he had dropped off to be cleaned and repaired. Rob noticed a spot on the epaulette that needed additional mending, so out came the needle and thread before the garment was returned to its owner. Some other locals wandered in and out, and then Al had time for a few moments of reflection.

The store has been here since 1955, he says. The building was once the borough building—“There were fire trucks parked in here at one time,” he says, gesturing toward some racks of shirts. His grandfather was in the business, as was his father and his uncle; the Garrisons had a clothing store in Mansfield for years as well. Al took over here in 1989 after his dad died and, yes, in the nearly thirty years since that he’s been watching Wellsboro from the store windows, things are different out there.

“Downtown traffic has changed,” he muses. “It used to be more of a local downtown, and it has evolved. I’ve become more of a destination because between here and Hornell, New York, and Jamestown, New York, there are no men’s shops, no one who sells tailored clothing. They come here because we fit clothes—that’s our specialty.”

So there’s a niche—what else has kept Garrisons Men’s Shop going strong?

The town, Al says, is “totally unique.”

“It’s one in a million and I might not be far off. The windows are clean, the streets are clean, there is some kind of pride here. The chains are not capable of putting out the service and quality.

“Part of the reason I’m here is I’m in a good town,” he continues. “I don’t know how it’s happened this way; I hope I’m part of that. Obviously Dunham’s are (more on Dunham’s in a minute). We have a family-owned shoe store here (In My Shoes at 85 Main). They’re harder to come by than men’s shops!” And of course there is the tourism. “We started promoting tourism in this town in the 1930s, even though it was just a ditch ten miles west (Larry Woodin’s Ditch, specifically),” Al says. What happened over the years after that was that families began coming to Wellsboro every summer. Businesses in other little towns got quiet during the summer months, but, as Al recalls, “John Dunham and I started realizing we weren’t. We’ve become more of a destination shop and the downtown has become a destination.”

It’s the people who come to vacation here, certainly, but it’s also the visitors Al calls the “day-trippers.”

“They come to shop and they love it,” he says. “It’s a refreshing change.”

What may account for that?

“I like the word community,” says Al Garrison.

83 Main? Yes and No

When I asked Sean Adams if he was going to be chief cook and bottle washer at The Roost, he kind of laughed. He might help the cook, he says, and the bottles, well, they’ll just be recycled.

Recycling is a big deal at The Roost, which, while it is still at 83 Main it is no longer called 83 Main, as it was for the years George Parulas owned it. The storefront has a long and somewhat checkered past, having been for a decades an establishment in the business of serving adult libations. Prior to its incarnation as 83 Main, it was, in most recent history, The North Star, Brought’s, and the T&J.

Before that? Sean’s nephew, Cameron Clemens, who will be manager/barista/cocktail master when The Roost opens, and who has been working alongside his uncle for over a year on the remodel, says they revealed an elevator-like shaft in the new kitchen area when they were tearing that section apart. They also discovered grain in various places in the building, so, perhaps, this was one of the two farm-supply stores that used to be part of downtown Wellsboro.

These days, however, the community is awaiting the newest planned use of the space. It will be a pub, a coffee house, an eatery, and a just plain cool place—a takeoff from The Wired Rooster, the Internet café Sean and Cameron had for about two and a half years at 76 Main, just across the street from this location. It made more sense, says Sean, to put the money and sweat equity into a building they would own rather than one they were renting, so that’s what they did. It worked out well, actually, because Johnny’z Hot Rod Café, a new Mexican-themed restaurant, is now where The Wired Rooster used to be (the John of Johnny’z is the brother of the man who owns that building).

“We took a leap of faith,” says Sean. The project is just taking a little longer than they had originally planned, so their faith is being tested just a little.

“We thought we’d be open for Laurel Festival last year,” Cameron says, with a hint of a heavy sigh. But you know how renovations go. You start work on the floor and discover your joists in the cellar all need to be replaced. You open up a wall and find something completely different than what you had expected—sometimes, however, you do find a couple of interesting doors that you can use in your kitchen. And when your focus is recycle and reuse, well, that presents a whole unique and interesting set of opportunities. 

About eighty percent of The Roost’s renovations/remodeling is recycled material, Sean and Cameron explain. A great deal of it came from Shane Nickerson, the Blossburg builder and mayor, who, with his wife, Jill, created 242 Coffee on that town’s Main Street using repurposed materials. They tore down an old house—it had belonged to Sean’s wife’s family—and salvaged a quantity of wonderfully aged and beautiful wood which now graces the long side wall and is adorned with an amazing array of one-of-a-kind lighting. The restrooms are a must-see—who would have thought of such a clever use for old beer kegs? They also bought a kind of large- scale box lot of things from Osram as the plant was closing—actually a room full of metal chunks and fittings, gauges and valves, multitudes of odd and mysterious containers overflowing with odd and mysterious devices.

“Some of it we don’t even know what it is,” Sean laughs.

“All the repurposed stuff takes forever to make it work,” says Cameron. That’s true, as on any given day he and Sean, along with various helpers, can be found wearing safety glasses, perhaps wielding a hammer or a pry bar, grinding or sawing or sanding, trying to make the best and most interesting use of an eclectic something or other that, in its former life, may have been part of another local structure or business.

Ultimately they will pay tribute to the building’s longevity as a business by making The Roost not just a pub, but a family-friendly place with food and drink offerings as unique and conversation-inspiring as the construction. And they’re after a feeling, a “warmth-feeling” as Sean puts it, a feeling “like it’s always been here.”

In a way it has.

A Sporting Chance at 81 Main Street

It’s possible nobody is as surprised and pleased as the new owner.

“It just keeps getting better every month,” says that new owner, Curt Schramm. “We’ve had a lot of positive comments.”

Curt started at Country Ski and Sports in 1995. Who knew that twenty-five years later (he sure didn’t!) he would be the guy in charge. CS Sports, formerly Country Ski and Sports, has been the setting for a variety of retail establishments, including a sporting goods store (more hunting-related than the recreational sports items for sale there now), an arcade, and a discount store. Curt, who bought the business last fall, wasn’t sure what kind of discounts or what kind of merchandise—it could be information just lost somewhere in Wellsboro’s history.

A couple of business practices have helped Country Ski and Sports stay successful, and are helping CS Sports thrive. One is offering a diversity of products (hey, it works in agriculture, too)—there are bikes and skis (depending on the season, of course) and all the things a person needs to go biking and skiing. ere are people to fix your bikes and skis. There are people to tell you the best places to go biking and skiing, and that happens because the folks who work here and hang out here are folks who love to bike and ski.

And there is a certain amount of flexibility that comes with the mixed blessing of being a small business on a small town Main Street.

Gloom, Doom, a Little Irony, and a Lot of Vavoom

I was looking for some stats on the life and status of Main Streets and Amazon pops up with an advertisement for a book totally related to my search (how serendipitous, right?), as well as telling me it has available over one million other books for Amazon kindle—no mention, obviously, of a hometown-type bookstore. The book? The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community by Miles Orvell.

Imagine a real, paper map of the Twin Tiers. Take a compass and put the point on Wellsboro, then draw a circle in a hundred-mile radius. Coudersport to Canton, Watkins Glen to Williamsport, Mansfield to Montoursville, and points beyond. Think of all the Main Streets (like Corning’s main thoroughfare, at right) in that circle and all the businesses on them. In the face of floods, fires, and other economic disasters, the owners regroup and rebuild, entrepreneurs take the plunge, and the Main Streets endure.

Pessimism abounds in the world of brick and mortar retail these days, whether the store in question is in Manhattan, Los Angeles, or somewhere in the Twin Tiers. Macy’s is closing stores nationwide, as is Sears, The Limited, JC Penney, and Abercrombie & Fitch. J. Crew and Gander Mountain are in trouble.

These kinds of retailers were for years the staples in downtowns and malls everywhere. Not so much anymore. And while there may be a certain Pyrrhic satisfaction in knowing the big chains that drove the Mom-and-Pops out of business are now facing a similar fate, it leaves downtown merchants wondering. What are small, locally-owned Main Street stores supposed to do when even the big guys can’t make it, when the specter of Amazon looms large, when customers come in not to shop but to “showroom”—that is, check out prices and then buy the same merchandise for less online?

What you do as a Main Street business is find a niche, provide an experience, play the local card, make yourself a destination people can’t resist, and remember that your friends and neighbors are your bread and butter.

If you’re lucky, you will have opportunities to frequent that kind of Main Street. If you’re really lucky, you can count that kind of Main Street as a place you can call home.

“We have the ability to adapt and to change in a changing economy because we are Mom and Pop stores and we’re not getting directives from corporate,” says Curt. “We just always have to find that mix of what the town needs. “I’m seeing Wellsboro merchants starting to come together and work together as businesses,” he continues. “We’re all trying to eke out a living here so we can live here. We have a lot of assets. We have everything here—it’s just on a different scale from the rest of the world.

“It’s more personal.”

Up and Down Main Street, It’s All Personal

Dunham’s, of course, is the grande dame of Wellsboro’s Main Street, the anchor, the family-owned marvel of a department store that has defied the odds by staying in business for over one hundred years selling groceries, farm supplies, clothing, furniture, hardware, lattes—in short, a little bit of everything, just like a department store is supposed to. Started in 1905 with half-interest in a grocery store, Roy and Fannie Dunham grew their family, grew their business, and, over the years, merged the two. Today Dunham’s famous Half of Half sale brings hordes of people into town, shoppers eagerly collect Bonus Bucks to spend in the store, and at Christmas time gift wrapping is free.

Main Street at its west end, AKA West Avenue, headed out of town toward the Tyoga Country Club and the Leonard Harrison side of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, is home to the West End Market Café. The storefront was a grocery store for a couple of generations, an ice cream parlor, a fabric store, a music store, and is now happily under the direction of Jenny Connelly, who opened this “globally inspired, locally sourced” café in 2010 and has been serving great coffee and delicious food there ever since. The back of the building houses First Position Dance Studio, under the tutelage of Taylor Nickerson (cousin to Shane, purveyor of quality reused and repurposed stuff for his own Blossburg coffee shop and The Roost at 83 Main) and Dawn McClelland (whose husband, Pete, and father-in-law, Pete, did a lot of the remodel work for Mountain Home’s new office and gallery here at 87-Main).

At the other end of Main Street, AKA Tioga Street, which is Route 6 west (and go figure how two opposite ends of the same street can both be “west”—just a nice Wellsboro feature) and right at the Delmar Township line, is Mountain Valley Realty. Chris Vandergrift, who has been a realtor in the borough for twelve years, just celebrated her first anniversary as owner, having bought the business a year ago from her mother.

In between are a variety of locally owned and operated Main Street success stories. At John’s Service Center, where Main, Tioga, and Charleston streets converge, John Mosso is proprietor of the only full-service gas station left in town. He’s been pumping fuel and working his magic on sick and injured vehicles for thirty-five years, “mostly with a smile,” he laughs, and “it looks like we’ll continue to.” The Steak House, 29 Main, has been family-owned and operated since 1957. Peggy’s Candies, under new ownership, thankfully continues the long Main Street tradition of providing a chocolate fix, with or without ice cream, to those in need. The Mountain Home office, in between Stained Glass Reflections at 87 Main (another unique, locally-owned shop) and Garrisons, was optometrist Dr. Scott Lee’s office until he retired last year. Some fun building trivia: According to Brian O’Shea (he owns the building CS Sports is in), Jim Clark owned three buildings in the immediate neighborhood, including this one and CS Sports, each housing a different business. When he had to—such as during lunch or other times employees might be away from their posts—he’d keep all three stores open by himself, running out the door of one into the door of the next to wait on customers.