Shawn Brannigan is the general manager at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop, which has been selling seeds (and agricultural and garden tools and supplies) to Mainers since 1911, first in Portland, and since 1969, in Falmouth. We called Brannigan up to talk longevity, late spring and about deciding to stick with a family business.

A MOUTHFUL: An abbreviated version of the early days involves three men named, well, Allen, Sterling and Lothrop, in what we now call the Old Port. Mr. Lothrop stuck around, but the other two gentlemen left the business in 1914, Brannigan said. Lothrop kept the full name and even though it passed into the hands of Brannigan’s family in the 1950s, the name has remained the same. “Believe me, I would love to change it.” Really? “Because it sounds like a law firm! I wish Mr. Lothrop had dropped the other names in 1914. It’s a mouthful.”

BRAND NAME: But he won’t change it, because despite consolidation in the marketplace and stiff competition over these 107 years, Allen, Sterling & Lothrop has remained in business at least in part because of how well known it is in the community. Branding like that is priceless. When Brannigan’s grandfather, Sherwood “Mickey” Maquire, joined the company, it was as Lothrop’s general manager. As family lore has it, Lothrop was ready to retire and was looking for someone to turn the company over to. He sought out Maquire, who was then managing another Portland business, Morrill’s Coal and Grain Co. “Mr. Lothrop had heard through the grapevine that the place was managed by a hard worker.” He made Maquire a deal; manage Allen, Sterling & Lothrop while leasing to own. “He would pay him (Lothrop) a certain sum of money every week until he died and then it would be his.” Brannigan doesn’t know exactly what the sum was.

ENTER SHAWN: By the time Brannigan was 13, he was packing seeds and washing trucks. His grandfather Maquire had moved the company to Route 1 in Falmouth in 1969, where land was cheap (“5.5 acres for $7,000”). At that time, little was there but a Shaw’s and a car dealership, and inside Allen, Sterling & Lothrop, pretty much every member of Brannigan’s family, working, including the middle schooler. “I hated packing seed. I just didn’t like to sit still,” Brannigan remembers. But it was better than shoveling out the neighbor’s chicken barn. “That was about the nastiest job you can imagine.” Seeds were a big part of the business, with the family selling to farmers in Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, but so was wholesale agricultural supply. That neighbor with the meat birds? His chicken waterers would have come from Allen, Sterling & Lothrop.

SHIFTING MODELS: As Maine became less agriculturally oriented, Allen, Sterling & Lothrop moved into more of a home gardening business model, selling more to greenhouses than farmers. “That became the new agriculture.” In their own nurseries, they began growing perennials and shrubs. They also opened a gift shop in Falmouth. The annuals they sell? “We buy them back from our (wholesale) customers.” They have seed racks in about 60 other stores around the state. “Up the coast to Belfast, coming across to Fairfield and Farmington.” You’ll see those racks in North Conway and down to Sanford. The seeds are still packed by hand in Falmouth. Does Brannigan do it? “Just about everybody here does. That is how we keep busy in the winter. The only time we are probably not packing is the summer.” In the fall, they move into germination tests for remaining seeds. And they start preparing for the winter, when new seeds arrive from producers in Western states, like Oregon and Washington.

SUNRISE SHAKE: They say the cobbler’s children often go without shoes. Does the same theory hold true for the seed sellers, or does Brannigan have his own garden at home? “I have a very small vegetable garden, and I fill half of that with garlic.” What goes in the other half? Kale for one. “Kale is so bulletproof. I make a health shake in the morning and I always put that in… I literally walk out in the pitch dark and pick my kale.” Brannigan is intent on nutrition: “Both my grandparents were still working in their 90s. I have high standards to live up to.”

PRO TIPS: He also grows radishes, string beans, carrots, cucumbers and spinach. “I like to grow New Zealand spinach. It’s a funky variety that doesn’t bolt in the heat. I don’t even bother with the other kinds.”

THE COMPETITION: Brannigan starting dating his wife when they were both in the 8th grade. “We broke up for probably two years in high school.” Then they reunited, and she helps his mother run the gift shop at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop now. In June, they will have been married 31 years, and working together steadily, through thick and thin. It must be hard to keep an independent business like this going in the age of big box stores that sell everything from light bulbs to bags of compost and plants, right? Definitely, he said. “It is even more of a miracle that the wholesale part of our business keeps going. Because the competition is even more fierce. From people you don’t even know about. And so much bigger than us. Companies that sell everywhere east of the Mississippi – that is who we are up against in the wholesale side of the business.” What’s the secret to such longevity? “People love our service.”

IT JUST HIT ME: Given that he hated packing seed packets as a kid, did he ever debate whether or not to join the family business? “Not once I decided I was going to be here.” When was that? He was about 20 years old and in the middle of a regular morning ritual, moving the wheelbarrows out to the lawn in front of the store. “I was walking those out one morning, and it just hit me.” He quietly returned to work, suddenly sure of his future. “When God tells me something, I listen.” Brannigan, 53, was raised Catholic, but now attends the nondenominational Life Church in Gorham. He has two sons, both of whom work part time at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop. Will they follow him into the business? He isn’t sure, but he’s not applying any pressure. “Absolutely not. It is totally up to them.” Although, “hopefully one of them is here to push me in to work in my wheelchair.” That’s what he did for his grandfather. “He was still coming to work when he was living in a nursing home!”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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