Several Houlton businesses closing after eclipse rush subsides

1 month ago

HOULTON, Maine – Several downtown Houlton businesses are closing within days of the April 8 total solar eclipse that brought about 20,000 visitors to the town.

The Shire Ale House, a restaurant; Shiretown Gaming, which sells and offered play sessions for  card, board and role play games; Lotus & Leaf teas and chaga brews; Erathan Emptor crystals and minerals; Serpents’ Edge knives and swords; Ritual Ink Tattoo and True Cyan tie dye, are closing their doors, although some will continue as online entities. Five of the businesses are located in the same building.

The ale house and gaming center were among the many small businesses that after the COVID-19 pandemic packed the downtown with interesting and often offbeat enterprises. 

But for artisans operating on limited budgets, paying for shop rental space is challenging when shopping traffic dwindles.  

Many of the businesses stayed open in the Aroostook County town of 5,700 hoping that the rush of eclipse visitors might sustain them in the weeks to come. While the owners are closing their brick and mortar locations for various reasons, Patrick Bruce, who owns The Shire Ale House and Shiretown Gaming businesses with his wife, Roxanne Bruce, said there were days when they did not have a single person walk through the door.

“It’s a situation where there is no finger to point and at the same time, it just comes down to volume,” he said. “I can’t explain why there were no customers.”

Roxanne Bruce took the lead in helping other artisans get shops up and running, including crystal and mineral shop Erathan Emptor. In 2023, Roxanne Bruce was awarded the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce Community Spirit Award and has been instrumental in bringing people to the downtown area through the town’s Renaissance Committee.

Lotus & Leaf tea shop was doing very well downtown, said owner, Randi Farrar. She decided to close her storefront to have more time with her family and will continue her shop online. 

“My business is doing very well, I closed because my family was struggling to find time to do things together,” she said. 

Ritual Ink was housed in the same building as Shire Ale House and because of building-related  issues owner and tattoo artist Richard Bettencourt said on Facebook that he will either be relocating or just closing indefinitely. 

Also in The Shire Ale House building, Christina Carrol, owner of True Cyan, plans to keep going with her business just not at her storefront. Eventually, she plans to find a new location with a workshop and a place for people to tie-dye on site.

Her business boomed during the eclipse, many people were interested in creating their own shirts and tie-dye parties, she said. She plans to continue operating in another form instead of in a downtown shop.

Carroll said several business owners have said the town is outdated and stuck in old ways. Small artisan businesses hear a lot of “you didn’t do this right and you didn’t do that right,” she said.

“We’re not in a generation that has overhead and we can’t wait around for it,” she said. “You’ve got to dive in and try and get your footing.”

Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jane Torres said that she always feels sadness about a business closing. 

“These people all had great ideas,” Torres said about the businesses that are closing. ”I hope they can find their footing.”

In January 2022 the Bruces opened a game shop downtown. At first they worked with Uncontained Food to provide meals for the gamers but when that business closed they started looking for a space for the gaming center and a restaurant.

When the building that now houses the ale house and game center became available, a friend purchased it, and the couple was leasing it to own. They were using about 3,000 square feet of the space, including the restaurant, gaming center and three other businesses in the space. True Cyan, Serpent’s Edge and Ritual Ink are also located in the building. 

“Life has taken twists, and continuing that portion of the business is just not possible for us anymore. Food prices, as you are probably aware, continue to rise,” the Bruces posted last week online. “The continual uptick in prices and people spending less has taken a toll.”

While the reasons the downtown businesses closed vary and could be a combination of things, Torres said that with new town manager Jeremy Smith coming on board at the end of the month, he may see things with new eyes.

“Maybe he can see what we can do differently,” she said.

In addition to these businesses closing, the town also lost Rise and Shine restaurant last month after being open just six months. Several months ago the owners of Tiny Homes of Maine decided to not return to their Houlton location following a devastating September 2023 fire at the Houlton Industrial Park at the Houlton International Airport. . 

The business resettled in an 11,000-square foot building in Dyer Brook, about 22 miles from its previous location.

“We had grant funding to have a new facility built in Houlton, but it was just dragging out and taking forever and didn’t seem like it was going to happen,” Co-owner Corinne Watson said at the time.