Closing of Randy’s Variety Marks End of Era in Alexander

After forty years, Carl and Rhonda Oakes have announced the upcoming closure of Randy’s Variety in Alexander. (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson

 

In the past, few locations held more importance to rural communities than locally-owned and operated general stores. Such establishments served not only as provisioners for vital supplies, they also became gathering points for community members of all ages as they discussed the topics of the day and engaged in social activities. In Alexander, Randy’s Variety has filled that role for the past 40 years – but now, the changing times have contributed to the announcement of the store’s closure at the end of September.

Originally opened as the Stagecoach Motel in 1962, the building gained the name of Randy’s Variety from Rhonda (Randall) Oakes’ parents, who operated it as a motel in tandem with a similarly-named restaurant in Baileyville. Rhonda and her husband, Carl, gradually expanded the store’s operations and shifted it away from being a motel over time in response to community demand.

At the time, it was a growing experience for the young family who had made their way to Alexander from Bradford, where Carl was born and Rhonda moved to when she was 17. The two got to know each other as neighbors and eventually married in 1974. Their connection with Alexander deepened with the birth of their first child, Mike – an occasion that took place six months after they took over the store. Living next to the building, Mike and his two siblings became regular features. “We really did raise our family here,” shared Rhonda, adding that their middle child, Carlos, took his first steps in the store.

Carl devoted his time and energy to the business, regularly putting in 15-hour days, seven days a week throughout the summer months. Rhonda worked steadily behind the scenes when she wasn’t actively volunteering at the Alexander Elementary School library. Their efforts and acumen were noticed and appreciated by the community.

“Carl was a good businessman,” said Ted Carter of After the Rain Farm. “He was always on top of keeping supplies in stock… all those things you need for living in the country.” Carter remarked on one of the most prominent facets of Randy’s Variety – it’s ability to attract the community. “In the 1980s, you’d see 30 or 40 trucks parked there, just like the old saloons. That was where you’d go to cross paths with people.” Many came to play cribbage, while the younger generation met to mingle and buy copious amounts of agreeably-priced candy.

For Carl, the people will be what he misses most. “[I’ll miss] all the local people coming in and talking, telling stories, reminiscing, stuff like that,” he said.

“Customers became friends, friends became family,” Rhonda said. She recounted how, when she had taken ill in the past year, friends came forward to bring her to the hospital and provide cooked meals when Carl was busy running the store. It was an experience made all the more profound by the recent recognition of how intricately linked Randy’s Variety has become with the people of Alexander. “In the community we’ve shared people passing away, babies being born, families being sick,and we’ve seen new generations. I was talking to one of the women at school, and we realized we’ve had five generations of her family in the store.”

The changing economy is but one reason that Randy’s Variety is closing. “We’re really not small business-friendly,” Rhonda explained. They recently learned that Taylor’s Bait is closing, meaning they wouldn’t have a bait supplier, and that the Bangor Daily News won’t be delivering on Route 9 anymore. Since they don’t sell fresh produce, they would soon be losing their WIC and EBT business. Some changes have been a gradual decline, such as magazine and Uncle Henry’s sales, both of which have been replaced by online access.

Shifting demographics have played another major role, Rhonda said. “When our children were here… there were over a hundred children in the school, and almost all of them were from Alexander. There were a lot of families. Right now, there are less than fifty kids in the school, and they’re not all from Alexander. That’s a portion of it.”

Some of their former clientele have seen dramatic changes in their own industries. They used to see a steady business of blueberry rakers, but now the harvesting is done by machine. “Things have changed a lot since we’ve started,” Rhonda said.

Once the store closes, Carl will be looking to do odd jobs for the area, including working on cars and doing carpentry. “Both of us want to stay active in the community,” Rhonda said. “I’ll stay active in the school and the grange; Carl will be active in the ATV club. We’ll be able to be more active in the community now.”

Since announcing the approaching closure, community members have come forward in droves to share their memories with the Oakes and with one another. Their Facebook page is laden with comments, and the Oakes have recently uploaded photos from the past four decades.

In celebration of the establishment’s past, Josie Wallace announced that they will be hosting a cribbage tournament at the store on Saturday, September 29, beginning at 9 a.m. “Come show your support where countless lunches have been eaten, laughs have been shared, and memories have been made,” Wallace writes. Those wishing to participate can sign up at the store.

 

For the Oakes, the community response has been heartwarming. “There were many, many loyal customers who really did make an effort to shop here and spend time at the store,” Rhonda said. “We can’t thank them enough. We’re still here in Alexander. We’re not leaving.”