CLIFF ISLAND – Grass-fed Le Cheval cheese and supermarket cheddar. Victory Hop Wallop beer and Budweiser. Wasabi green peas and bubble gum.

Side by side they sit, as different as summer and winter, at Pearls Seaside Market & Cafe.

After Labor Day, Maine-made organic gelato will melt away and name-brand ice cream will fill the freezer. Changing out the food helps Steve and Johanna Corman mark the passing of seasons, and provides the ingredients with which they have created a successful business in the middle of Casco Bay.

On the mainland, a little shop that carries free-range Maine eggs is nice. But Pearls is the only store on Cliff Island, six miles from the mainland. For the 45 winter residents and 200 or so who call Cliff their summer home, Pearls is more than a novelty.

“It’s one of the pillars of any island — a school, a community hall and a store,” Steve Corman said. “If any one of them closes, the island changes.”

The Cormans came two years ago from Virginia, seeking change. In finding a new way of life for their family, they are preserving one for those who love this island.


Cliff is one of 15 Maine islands with a year-round population. Part of the city of Portland, Cliff has a one-room schoolhouse, a community hall and no paved roads. The store and cafe occupy the ground floor of an old two-story building overlooking the ferry terminal.

A store has been at the site as long as anyone can remember. It was a general store in the 1950s, when Bruce Thompson moved here as a boy and the old-timers played cribbage around a stove. By the 1960s, the store had fallen into disrepair.

“Several owners tried it for a year,” he said.

One resident moved the store in the 1980s, to what’s now a fisherman’s fuel shack in a nearby cove. But by 2000, a modest grocery store had reopened at the ferry terminal.

“It’s vital to have a store,” Thompson said. “Without a store, the entire framework of the island is changed. It’s more than a store. It’s a social meeting place.”

By 2008, the store was for sale again. That’s when Johanna Corman, who grew up on a farm in Oxford County and was vacationing with her two children, visited Cliff.


She saw a handwritten sign on the store’s window: “Subs & Soda, $5, Add chips, $6, Store for Sale, $5,000.”

She called her husband and suggested they buy the store. Steve Corman had never been to Cliff, but within weeks, they had quit their jobs as teachers, sold their home in Virginia and moved to Maine. They named the business Pearls. The island and the store are little pearls in the ocean, Johanna Corman said.

Most small grocery stores stock the staples — milk, bread, eggs and beer. Pearls carries these products, but the Cormans realized early that the island’s summer visitors and homeowners — most living out of state — had more varied tastes.

In summer, those preferences are on display in the refrigerator case.

Almost all the summer people prefer Kate’s Homemade Butter, churned daily in Old Orchard Beach. There are 16 varieties of beer, and 20 cheeses from Wright’s Haven Farm in Limington. The most popular frozen dessert is not ice cream.

“My best seller is Maples Organics sea salt caramel-almond gelato,” Steve Corman said. “It’s to die for.”


In the cafe, Johanna Corman prepares homemade muffins and cinnamon rolls. Pizza is made to order and a BLLT sandwich is bacon, lettuce, lobster and tomato.

Come fall, the refrigerator case will transition to butter from Sam’s Club, four supermarket cheeses and three beers — Bud, Heineken and Samuel Adams. The cafe, which lacks heat, will close. And the store will open only for a couple of hours, a few days a week.

The store has been a blessing for longtime summer residents who don’t want to be bothered buying food on the mainland.

Eva Alming has spent summers here since 1930. She remembers meat hanging in an ice room behind the store, before the island got electricity.

“He’s the best store we’ve ever had,” said Alming, who was picking up sugar and eggs one day last week. “You can find almost anything here. And if it isn’t here, Steve will get it for you.”

But Pearls needs more than island business to thrive. The Cormans are using old and new methods to attract recreational boaters and local fishermen. They advertise in Points East magazine, which is closely read by the yachting crowd.


They maintain a Facebook page. Steve Corman attended a workshop and learned how to optimize the store’s website, to push up Pearls in a Google search.

Old-style word of mouth helps, too. On a sunny day last week, Steve Train and Alex Anderson sat at a picnic table by the store, enjoying homemade pizza. Lobstermen from nearby Long Island, they were pulling traps in the area and had called ahead to order lunch.

“These whoopie pies are amazing,” Anderson said of one of the store’s signature treats.

Visiting boaters help make Pearls profitable, but not enough to sustain a family. Steve Corman will move back to the mainland after Labor Day for his commute to Standish, where he’s a teacher at Bonny Eagle High School. Someday, he said, he wants to buy a house on Cliff and retire.

Retirement was a distant thought last week, after a Casco Bay Lines ferry boat called the store. It would be stopping for 15 minutes around noon with 145 passengers, 98 of them out for a day cruise.

Time to spring into action. Johanna Corman shoveled frozen whoopie pies into a basket. Pizza went into the oven; hot dogs came out of the fridge.


When the Maquoit II docked, an army of hungry visitors marched up the hill. They mobbed the cafe counter as Johanna Corman scooped ice cream and her assistant Molly Medrano served pizza and cooked the dogs. Steve Corman manned the store. Fifteen minutes later they were gone.

Back on the boat, Capt. Gene Willard was finishing a sandwich from the cafe. He motioned to the deck below, filled with passengers.

“Look at the bow,” he said. “Everyone has ice cream and everyone is happy. It’s a long ride home, and they’re eating ice cream on the coast of Maine.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:


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