'Farm Town' gets its storeArtist tries hand at 'fundamentally useful' commerce
Belfast — Jobie Cole decided to open a store before he knew what would be in it. Since then, he's been working with "no budget," an evolving game plan, and by all appearances, enough energy to match the many — and sometimes contradictory — ideas he's hoping to fit in a storefront the size of a large walk-in closet.
As of last week, the inventory included a handful of art objects made by Cole and presented like things in a discount store. Flat packages with cardboard cutouts painted to look like spray paint cans hung from a pegboard rack along with other quasi-merch stuff and a large "99¢" badge.
On a shelf were two painted cutouts of plants poking out from the tops of real pots. One wall was painted bright orange. There were some empty clothing racks, a changing room with a paper lantern and a few weathered wooden lobster buoys in one corner. Several of Cole's paintings hung on the walls. These, like many things in the store, were brightly colored and playful with nods to regular things: cameras, cell phones, etc.
When Cole opens The Farm-Town Store in mid-September, the inventory could include vintage clothing, pottery, snowboards — or one really good snowboard, which he's considered as a potentially more interesting approach than stocking a variety.
"I like things that are fundamentally useful," he said, "like salt, or water or coffee."
He also likes chopsticks. A company in Oregon makes them and Cole has considered an order. On Sunday, there was a pile of colorful rope bracelets on the counter, made by a local artist.
From Cole's descriptions, it's hard to know what The Farm-Town Store will be, but he seems to have the key, or an idea of where to find it. Maybe it's the tension between the handmade and the mass-produced. Maybe it's the best of both worlds. Occasionally, he drops a big idea: "Making things in the U.S.," or "Things for living."
The name of the store is a pun on Cole's hometown of Farmington. Cole also draws a connection between agriculture and industrial production lines. Maybe more importantly, the name is a nod to Belfast, which Cole affectionately describes as a city built on farming.
Cole's storefront on Beaver Street looks out at Belfast Co-op. Across the street, workers at Chase's Daily, where Cole has worked in the past, unload vegetables brought in from the family farm in Freedom.
"It kind of is the 'farm town,'" he said.
Friends have dropped by during remodeling and made suggestions. Cole has used some of them. As an artist embarking on his first commercial venture, those kinds of exchanges were refreshing and ultimately productive.
"The better idea is the one that surfaces," he said. "Instead of me staying in the studio, it's a collaboration."
He admires industry giants like McDonald's and Home Depot for their efficiencies and having a clear message about what they sell.
"There's a reason why people go to those places," he said. "There's a reason those places are wildly successful."
He also thinks they could make better products if they wanted to.
Small stores are more often associated with quality, and also with higher prices. Conventional wisdom says a small shop will never be able to compete with the prices of the big chains. But Cole thinks the good ones can narrow the gap.
He pointed to Chase's Daily as a local example of a small business hitting all the marks of quality and broad appeal.
"When you go to a place and there's a line out the door, it must be good," he said.
Cole also talks about David Chang — "My friends get sick of hearing me talk about him," he said. The chef is devoted to scallions and in interviews sticks to a very tight script. Cole sees both things as marks of consistency, and consistency as the best way to share your big ideas.
"You have to have clarity," Cole said.
After a pause, he added, "And confidence."
"I don't know if it makes a good article, but it's the truth," he said.
The Farm-Town Store is located at 9 Beaver St., Belfast.