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Maine is a state of road signs. If you’re “from away,” as in anywhere but Maine, you could easily be diverted by a MOOSE XING photo op or a hand-scrawled advertisement for $14 lobster rolls that would have any New Yorker slamming on the brakes. There’s also the infamous World Traveler Sign in Lynchville, Maine, which points to nine Maine locales named after foreign destinations: Norway, Paris, Denmark, Naples, Sweden, Poland, Mexico, Peru and China. Reportedly, 18th- and early 19th-century Mainers with their own campaign for statehood named their hamlets after other populations fighting for independence. But I think it was just good old Maine practicality. Why come up with new names when there are already so many to choose from?
If you’re a bride-to-be, there is one Maine sign that you should definitely heed. In the town of Windsor (population 2,575), Hussey’s General Store advertises GUNS, WEDDING GOWNS, COLD BEER to anyone who happens to be passing by. And while this might seem like another instance of baiting those “from away” into free advertising, that wedding dress thing? It’s not just a gimmick.
“People believe if we carry [dresses] they must not be a nice variety, but when they come they’re very pleasantly surprised,” says Kristen Ballantyne, who manages the clothing department at Hussey’s. Before Kristen was a Ballantyne she was a Hussey (pronounced with a zz), and she grew up working in the store. Her great-grandparents started the business on a site adjacent to its current location in 1923, back when transportation made it difficult to get to major cities. “It started out very small, as just a mishmash of basic things,” Ballantyne explains, “and then — as it began to get more and more popular — they just kept adding on.”
In 1954, the Husseys realized they were going to need a bigger space. Around the same time, Ballantyne’s great grandmother started offering women’s apparel — including formalwear — which now includes the bridal, bridesmaid, and mother-of-the-bride dresses the store offers. “There was no other place in Central Maine, really,” she says. Some of the designers she carries, such as Sweetheart Gowns and Alfred Angelo, also have small, family-business origin stories.
To get to Hussey’s bridal boutique one walks past the gas pumps outside, the bags of compost for sale, and the shelves of groceries and Maine-themed gifts on the first floor. Upstairs, adjacent to the guns and the fishing supplies, is a dusky rose-colored alcove that Ballantyne will cordon off for two-hour bridal appointments (although walk-ins are always welcome.)
“Almost everybody stops there, even if they don’t buy their dress there,” says Jenna Corey, a daycare teacher in North Carolina. “It’s one of those things that you do.” Corey spent a decade in Maine before getting married in December 2016 and moving south. Her husband is close friends with Kristen Ballantyne’s husband, and when they first started dating, he took her as his plus one to the Ballantynes’ wedding. Ballantyne was wearing a Hussey’s dress, and Corey’s preconceptions of the general store sort of flew out the window. “Kristen is such a classy, sophisticated woman so I was like ‘okay, I’m sold.’” When she got engaged not long after, Corey could have driven to Portland to shop (an hour and a half away) but had a good gut feeling about Hussey’s. “I knew I would never, ever set foot in David’s Bridal,” she says.
For all of the brides I talk to, Kristen Ballantyne has defined the identity of Hussey’s bridal department. Ballantyne studied social work and psychology in Boston, practicing in those fields before doing something she’d sworn she’d never do — returning to Windsor to work at the general store. Her background in social work has been an asset when it comes to setting brides-to-be at ease. “Some people come in very closed off,” she says. “It’s a personal thing, it’s an emotional thing, and not everyone’s very open about that.”
Many of Ballantyne’s friends have bought their dresses at Hussey’s, including Nicole White, a federal consultant in DC. White grew up in Windsor but was living in Boston at the time she got engaged. “I traveled back to Windsor to get my dress because I wanted to get it from Hussey’s,” she says. Everyone who wore dresses in her wedding — the bridesmaids, her mother, even the flower girl — was outfitted at Hussey’s. White’s fiance, who was able to browse guns while she looked at gowns, declared Hussey’s “the best store I’ve ever been in.” Last year, White also bought her Christmas tree at Hussey’s and drove it all the way back to DC. She likes to pull up the store’s website for those who have never heard of it and watch them try to reconcile their expectations with her wedding photos.
“I think sometimes people get caught up in the joke behind the sign, but it actually is a great place to get a dress,” White says. “[Kristen’s] going to find you a dress no matter what your price range… she has an eye for those types of things. She can pull stuff together; she’s very good at what she does.” (My cousin was married in a Hussey’s dress in 2009. When I show Ballantyne a photo, she immediately identifies the designer.)
Hussey’s bridal department has had clients from Alaska and Hawaii and brides who grew up in Maine who now live overseas, and Ballantyne says it’s fun to write out these far-flung shipping addresses after a gown has been chosen and tailored. Mostly, though, brides come from all over Maine to try on Hussey’s wedding gowns. The iconic GUNS, WEDDING GOWNS, COLD BEER has more or less been there since the ’70s– they tried to change the wording once, but there was an outcry.
“Obviously, we’ve grown over the years, but we haven’t really lost that personal touch. It’s like a social hub for a lot of people,” says Ballantyne. Knowing how to change with the times while still preserving that country-store feel has been crucial to her work. Ballantyne not only reads the brides, but reads trends and how her customer might respond to them. “We can take pieces of what’s trending but tone it down in a way that’s more functional,” she says. “It just takes a while for Maine to catch on sometimes.”
“I think they’re looking for a more traditional look with a wow factor,” says Michele Pelton, one of Hussey’s clothing and bridal consultants, “You can look at [the bride] in the dress and say ‘wow, she’s beautiful’ not ‘wow, that was some kind of dress.’” Empire-waist dresses and A-line fits are perennially popular with Hussey’s brides.
“Different trends we go through, but bodies tend to be the same,” says Ballantyne, who also makes an effort to stock a better variety of plus-size dresses than other boutiques. All of Hussey’s dresses are $1,100 and below.
“We have a reputation that goes before us,” says Pelton. Hussey’s doesn’t keep track of the average number of dresses they sell a year, but Ballantyne remembers one year they sold 100 dresses, and that was good. Both Pelton and Ballantyne observe that internet has been a gift and a curse when it comes to the store. Online retail presents an overabundance of choice, which in turn affects the way women shop. “Today’s society is so used to having everything,” says Pelton, “[The customer will] want an element of part of the dress and then they’ll want an element of another dress. Well, we can’t cut the dress in half.” Ballantyne adds that some brides think they are going to have a “monumental moment,” complete with tears, but the right fit is sometimes just that… right. She says it’s “mind-blowing” for some brides when the first dress they try on is the one they get. “They can’t really think that it was that easy, and sometimes it is.”
Of course, Facebook and Instagram also help spread the word about the store. A photo of Ballantyne and her husband posing in front of the famous sign — him holding a gun, her a six-pack of beer — got over 2,700 shares from the store’s Facebook page, practically viral for a business with 4,500 likes. Pinterest’s love of rustic weddings has encouraged Maine women whose hometown is dotted with old barns and wildflowers to embrace their most practical theme option. Ballantyne has also used Pinterest for inspiration in expanding her offering of guest books, frames, and other knickknacks that brides need. Among the selection, I spot “Mr. and Mrs.” Mason jar glasses and thank-you notes silhouetted with birch trees.
Margaret Boynton, a first grade teacher, is getting married in July in the woods by her house in Palermo (yup, Maine). She bought her dress from Hussey’s this winter, but has yet to order her footwear of choice — mint-green Converse. Boynton grew up in the next town over from Windsor. “I’ve been going to Hussey’s my whole life,” she says. The day she stopped in to try on wedding dresses, she unexpectedly ran into her father doing his own regular shopping. “I’ve gone to other places with friends before and I just felt like their experience was totally different,” she says. “I encourage people to go and look, because I think once you actually get into the store you can tell that it’s more than what people expect.”
When I visited Hussey’s at the beginning of May, the store was relatively quiet. However, this sleepy mood changes in the summer months as Maine continues to earn its nickname: “Vacationland.” Windsor residents mark the end of the season in August, with a fair just down the road (imagine the signage!). “The whole feel, the whole atmosphere, it just changes in the summer,” Ballantyne explains. “There’s just a buzz in the air all the time.”
The same summer people stop in every year to say hello en route to Camden, or Bar Harbor, or even Nova Scotia. They come to Maine because it cuts through the noise — like a carefully curated selection of dresses. There’s no champagne, but there is a sale on Carhartt. For a couple of hours you’ll feel like a VIP, even if you are from away.