January 13, 2013

For closing Albion general store patrons and employees, bygone days were filled with memories

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Since it was founded by Harold Keay in August 1927, the H.L. Keay & Son general store has built up a history full of colorful anecdotes that illustrate the history of the town itself.

click image to enlarge

Albion resident Charlene Quimby gets out of a vehicle at the H.L. Keay & Son store in Albion on Wednesday. The store is closing, probably this week, after 86 years in business. "It's a tragedy they are closing," Quimby said. "Harold and his son Crosby were so generous to the community." She added that shoppers could always get what they wanted without driving to bigger stores.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Paul McFarland, 78, worked for Keay and his son, Crosby, during a 48-year career with the store. He began working at the store in the 1950s, when he was 19 years old. At that time, the store did a booming business with local farmers for corn seed, fertilizer, 100-pound bags of grain and such.

"We used to unload five or six railroad carloads of grain a week there for the chickens," he said. "This was before the bulk grain came."

McFarland would also fill the grocery orders of customers, who handed him a list of what they wanted and waited while he assembled their purchases in bags or boxes for them to take home.

He remembered one regular customer who used to come in every day to purchase a single piece of chewing tobacco. One day, a young McFarland suggested that he buy two pieces and save himself a trip.

"He said he didn't want to leave one behind when he died," McFarland said.

When McFarland began, he earned $45 for a weekly 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., six-day schedule.

"He was very good to me," McFarland said. "I have no complaints whatsoever. Some people said he was kind of moody, but if he liked you, he'd do anything for you."

McFarland said Keay bought a Mardens store from Albion native Harold "Mickey" Marden as part of the Keay store's expansion. Decades later, in 2002, Marden's wheelchair, valued at $4,000, was stolen from the back seat of his car. Keay's grandson, Jerry Keay, currently a co-owner of the store, joined in the chase for the thief. When he saw the thief on the street, he helped to apprehend him by shouting out of his truck window for bystanders to grab him and hold him for the police.

The store has appeared on the edges of small-town tragedies that have struck Albion. In 2008, 34-year-old John Sullivan was shot and killed by state police, who were responding to a domestic violence call. In the wake of the shooting, which occurred near the Keay store, Sullivan's coworkers revealed that he had the nickname "Two-cup John" for his habit of buying coffee at the Keay store and bringing it to work.

In 2009, a procession of 34 tractors passed near the Keay store as part of a funeral ceremony for Eben Quimby, an Albion teenager and tractor enthusiast who died of leukemia. Friends remembered a 5-year-old Eben sitting in the Keay store talking tractors with his father.

The store has also made news over the years as a bellwether for business trends affecting country stores. In 2006, it was cited as an example of a meat market that was successfully withstanding the explosion of large supermarkets by offering a more personal touch. In 2011, Kevin Keay said that the closing of the store's main distributor, Associated Grocers of Maine, would make it more difficult to stay in business.

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