Westbrook’s Highland Variety store, rich in history, closed its doors just before the holidays.

The business, which operated as a convenience store and gas station on the busy corridor of Route 302, has served residents of the Highland Lake neighborhood and regular commuters on the route for decades.

Owner Rick Wagner, who owned and operated the store for 28 years, said last week that a few unfortunate slow periods caused him to consider a sale, including last summer during a construction period on Route 302. Wagner said a sale is possible soon, but wouldn’t disclose further details.

The store is part of a Highland Lake neighborhood that is steeped in history, but showing its age. A parcel with a former ice cream shop, just next door, is also for sale. Across the street, in Hawkes Plaza, developer Bill Umbel has been working to establish a neighborhood bar, but has pushed back opening multiple times. Last week, Umbel said he’s hoping to open by late March or April.

According to City Councilor Mike Sanphy, who is also the president of the Westbrook Historical Society, the history of the Highland Variety location goes back to the 19th century.

From the early days of Westbrook, he said, there had always been a store with a post office at that location.

“The store was operated at various times by some of the older families of the area,” Sanphy said, mentioning past names such as the A.D. Woodbury Store, James Gowen Store, A.J. Phelps and R.H. Bailey.

In 1926, he said, the original store burned, and the old stable of the Highland Lake Grange was moved from beside the Grange to the site of the old store, which was then renovated.

“The addition on the right was built as a garage bay for servicing cars when the store had a Mobil Oil franchise,” he said, adding that he’s unsure when the store’s post office closed.

Dave Gowen, the master of the Highland Lake Grange, an organization and building also rich in history, said Tuesday that the absence of Highland Variety has left “a void” in the neighborhood.

Gowen, who grew up in the neighborhood, said he remembers buying 10-cent sodas at the store when he was young.

“The store has been there a long time,” Gowen said, adding that this is the first time he can remember that the store has ever closed. “It’s never shut down like this, I don’t believe.”

Gowen said he hopes the store will be bought and rehabbed, but said it’s tough to say what will become of it. He said now, the closest corner store is probably Corsetti’s, which is some three miles down Bridgton Road, far from walking distance.

An investor in Wagner’s business, and a longtime friend, Ron Trufant, said Tuesday that the corner or variety store is difficult to operate, given the competition from larger convenience stores such as Cumberland Farms.

“It’s not easy, and it’s not for everyone, but he had a good run,” Trufant said about Wagner. Trufant added that there has already been some interest and potential buyers, which includes himself.

“I told him, ‘Get the best price you can. You’ve earned it,’” he said.

Matt Tompkins, the owner of Digby’s Variety on 110 New Gorham Road, said Wednesday that he was surprised to hear of Highland Variety closing, given its long history and location on Route 302, but also said the corner store is “not an easy business to run.”

Tompkins, who has run Digby’s for 17 years, says profit margins on a lot of items are not what they used to be, and competition is at an all-time high.

“It can just burn you out,” he said.

Along with his wife, Tompkins runs the store with two other employees who live within 200 yards of the shop, making it truly “a neighborhood store.”

He said customers from out of state sometimes comment on the presence of “mom-and-pop” stores in the area.

“You see them disappearing all over the place,” he said.

There is a for-sale sign outside Highland Variety after the long-running store closed late last month. Staff photo by Andrew RiceThis photo depicts the original store building on the site of present day Highland Variety. Alvin Dyer Woodbury operated the store and post office when this photo was taken, but the building was destroyed by a fire in 1926. Photo courtesy Mike Sanphy.


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