FREEPORT — Burton Brewer still savors the tangible and detailed fabric of small-town life: The man at the record store knows Brewer and his tastes; he is received warmly at the coffee shop; friends and neighbors greet him or stop to chat as he makes his way from shop to shop on Main Street.
The problem for Brewer is that all this community warmth takes place 10 miles from the town where he has lived for 50 years. Freeport is his home, but downtown Brunswick is now his village.
Freeport, he said, has been consumed by retail outlets and has lost its center — literally and culturally.
“There’s no hub to the spokes,” Brewer, 57, complained. “What they did was they tore the town down and now it’s not for the people anymore.”
Indeed, whereas other communities across the country have seen their downtowns die when malls and outlets grew on their fringes, Freeport is instead a town whose very heart — houses, apartment buildings, even its library — was directly devoured by retail America.
An inexorably expanding parking lot, leading from merchandising giant L.L. Bean through what used to be a neighborhood, has crept to the very edges of the elementary school. Other lots spread in a retail litmus bleed through other former neighborhoods.
A town of about 7,000 that once made its living through the shoe industry and shipbuilding now depends on 4 million shoppers each year.
Townspeople do not come here to shop.
If they want to meet with friends over coffee in their hometown — as they do down at The Falcon — they have to do it early, before the outlet stores open and the town clogs with shoppers.
Merchants complain when local youths gather in the heart of town, where their schools remain for now but where there is little for them to do.
“The merchants don’t want the kids getting out of school and hanging out in town,” said Katrina Van Dusen. “The library used to be right there and that was the hangout place. Now even the library’s gone,” moved from the downtown center to its fringe, about a half-mile away from the stores, farther from the schools.
“It’s one of the things that’s bothered me most in all this,” said Brewer. “They’ve run the kids out, but the town’s given them nothing to do.
“Everything in the town center is geared to the shoppers, not to the local people,” he added.
Shoshana Hoose, a documentary filmmaker who has just finished a film, “Outlet Town,” that looks at what has happened to Freeport, said people here often give directions using the names of outlet stores rather than street names.
“You take a right at Mikasa, or you go left at Ralph Lauren,” she said, chuckling.
It is easy to see why this is possible.
Main Street is lined with stores: L.L. Bean, Nine West, Jones New York, London Fog, Benetton, Dansk, Mikasa, Cole-Haan, Ralph Lauren.
Other stores now spill down side streets: Patagonia, The North Face, Calvin Klein.
The library has become the Vermont Teddy Bear store. Homes have been converted to stores. There is talk that the town hall may someday have to move out of the center of town.
Joseph Conforti, a professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine, said that what has happened in Freeport is simply the modern version of the culture of an old “company town.”
“Freeport is a company town. Not in the classic mill-factory-worker sense, but a variation on that,” he said, meaning an industry runs the town and many of its people are dependent on that industry. The people need the business, but the business leaves no room for them to enjoy their everyday pursuits, townspeople say.
Some people blame L.L. Bean, established here 85 years ago, even as they acknowledge the money the company gives to local causes, nearly a million dollars in recent years for education, recreation and community services; the jobs it provides, 3,500 year-round, 8,000 at the holiday peak; the taxes it pays, nearly 20 percent of the town’s total. In addition, the company and the Gorman family, which owns it, have pledged $2 million to help establish a YMCA in town, a move that could bring back some sense of community.
But Bean, some say, has too many employees on local boards. Whatever it wants, it gets, they claim.
Others point to a fire in 1981 that burned down a variety store and an apartment building across from Bean. After that, outlet stores sprouted up and down the street, nurtured in the economic grow-light of Bean’s worldwide fame.
Lower-income folks, who lived in the apartments and smaller neighborhoods just off the main street, were forced out. The town’s tonier sections were beyond their means.
“Everybody who couldn’t afford to stay has left,” said Hoose.
“Families ended up spread all over the state,” added Brewer.
What was left was a theme park with shopping as its featured ride. And tourists don’t really see the town for what it was, Hoose said.
“For the tourists, it feels like they are in a New England village, which they are, architecturally,” said Hoose.
Townspeople, however, stay away for the most part, she said.
“People have learned to live quite well just completely avoiding downtown,” Hoose said. “They just don’t feel like there’s anything there for them anymore or that it would be worth fighting the traffic if they did.”
The words to a rap song, “Living in an Outlet Town,” bounce in the background of Hoose’s documentary.
Written by Hoose and her husband, Phillip, and backed by the constant refrain, “shop, shop, shop, shop, shop …,” the song laments:
Make way for the buses,
Make way for the cars …
No room for these houses
No room for that tree
No room for the school
or the library
No room for our kids
No room for me.’
Its lyrics reflect how Philip Jones feels. He lives in one of the last homes still in the downtown, one in a bent line of squat little houses on Morse Street, where the parking lot behind Bean’s has most recently taken its bite.
“My neighborhood is no longer a neighborhood. It’s a line of seven houses,” Jones said before correcting himself; another had just been leveled. “Now it’s just six houses, carved up into an L-shape of what used to be a neighborhood. We’re living in a parking lot.”
The houses, which predate the outlets by decades, were left by town zoning as a residential barrier, he said, after parents complained that children at the elementary school would be bumping shoulders with a ceaseless ebb and flow of strangers come to shop.
“We’ll make them the buffer zone,” Jones said was the town’s plan for his neighborhood. “We were supposed to take the hit and stay residential.”
Instead, they fought and got their properties zoned commercial. They want the option of selling. They want the fair market price that residential will not give them.
It is one more neighborhood cut off from small-town life, Jones said.
“It’s like we’ve become a bunch of small tribes around the fringes of town with no place to gather,” he concluded.