Dad pulled off the road, nosing the old blue truck up close to the side of the building. The truck smelled like a mixture of Tarryton cigarettes and wet cement from the plant he worked at. This was the sort of truck that today no one would ever let a 4-year old ride in, but this was well before car seats or even seat belts were mandatory. I liked riding in the truck even though I couldn’t really see out the front window, just the side, and even then my nose was flush with the bottom of the window.
Both my parents worked, but Dad got out early so most afternoons he would pick me up from my grandparents’ house up on the hill. We lived just a mile down the road, but often Dad kept driving past our house down to Tut’s General Store. The store was at the center of the NorthVillage, right next door to my Auntie Ruthie’s house. Across the road was a vacant field, “The Town Common”, which at one time was used as the fairgrounds but was mostly where people parked their snowmobiles in the winter. On the other side of the lot, sitting on a gentle hill, was the white clapboard church, its steeple rising over the trees.
Dad helped me out of the truck and held my hand as we walked inside. It was a strange building. Two stories tall, the second floor held several apartments. The store itself comprised about half of the bottom floor, while the other half was hidden behind barn-like doors. For a time they stored grain feed in there for the local farmers to buy. Years later that space would be renovated to house a restaurant, but when I was little it was all just scary dark space that I would tiptoe past with a sidelong glance.
Dad helped me navigate the narrow slab of cement out front that served as a porch, along with a couple of old gas pumps. On either side of the front door were simple red wooden benches, the paint worn and peeling, where later in life I would spend hot summer afternoons eating ice cream. The front door was actually two narrow doors, heavy, with glass windows from the midlevel to the top. As Dad led me in, a little bell at the top of the door tinkled.
To the right of the door was a tall wooden cabinet, similar to what you might see in a jewelry store. The top of the case was glass, and inside were all the candy bars laid out in neat rows. To get the candy out, you had to go behind the cabinet, put your finger in a little hole, and slide one of the wooden doors to the side. Dad lifted me up so I could choose M&Ms or a Hershey bar like him.
Beyond the candy bar cabinet was an old pot-bellied woodstove, surrounded by similarly pot-bellied men playing cribbage and reading the newspaper, smoking and drinking coffee. They were wearing heavy plaid flannel shirts and baseball-style caps advertising John Deere tractors. Their conversation was hard to follow, between the heavy Maine accents and the tendency of many to talk out of one side of their mouth while holding their cigarette with their lips on the other side. A few nodded to my father; this time I didn’t know any of them, but often my grandfather or uncles would be gathered around the stove. I always thought it would be fun to sit down and listen to their stories, but Dad said it wasn’t really the sort of conversation fit for little girls to hear. Instead, he steered me to the counter where we paid for a newspaper and our treat, conspiring not to tell Mom about the chocolate before dinner.
A few years later, I would be in and out of there practically on a daily basis. In between our own important childhood errands for candy and soda, Auntie Ruthie would send one of us kids down to the store to buy her cigarettes and Nana would send us to buy milk. Years after that I’d bring my “From Away” college boyfriends there, laughing as they tried to decipher the thick Maine accents that surrounded them. Occasionally I would meet people in the oddest of places, like Memphis, who knew all about Tut’s and waxed poetically about its charm. I would automatically assume they had confused it with someplace else, until they told me about buying a “Wicked Pissah” t-shirt there or eating a buffalo burger. Yes indeed, that was Tut’s.
Forty years later the stove is long gone, as is the candy cabinet. Many of the men who sat around that stove are long gone too. And it’s not called Tut’s anymore, but most of the locals still call it that anyway. Whether it’s stubbornness or collective amnesia, we only think about the name change when someone momentarily forgets the phone number and stands there with the phone book in hand wondering, “What the hell do they call Tut’s now?”
(For the record, it’s Melby’s.)
For a small rural town like Waterford, Tut’s has been more than just a place to buy milk and a newspaper. It’s been the center of town life, where you run into someone you haven’t seen in ages and spend half an hour catching up. I cannot count the number of conversations in my family that have begun with, “I saw so-and-so up at Tut’s and she said….” It’s where you get to meet a new baby, her parents out for breakfast for the first time since her birth, or offer condolences on a recent death. It’s where someone vaguely familiar turns out to have been in your third grade class, or the guy who dated your sister in high school, or sometimes even a relative you just haven’t seen in years. (Me to a just-graduated-from-high-school teenage cousin: “When did you start walking? Because I’m pretty sure the last time I saw you, you were crawling across Nana’s kitchen floor.”) And, for me anyway, it’s been carried through family generations: my mom used to go there as a kid to buy malted milk balls and Pepsi, and now we bring my nieces there for ice cream.
There were other general stores in town, but one by one they closed. There are probably lots of reasons Tut’s survived, not the least of which because its current owners, Paul and Kay, have worked their butts off for years to make it successful. But I think part of its longevity lays in the fact that it feels like a part of all of us who call Waterford home (whether or not we still actually live there). For those who are travelling through it’s a good place to grab some lunch on the way to Sunday River, but it’s much more than that for the locals. It’s a part of our personal and collective histories, a common point in the universe that we all share and recognize and know. And even though we don’t own it, it feels like it’s ours.