A North Haven Gift—June Hopkins


The sign on the front of the 19th-century frame building is very much like the woman who has run the business inside for the last 60 years. gift shop, it reads. No more, no less.

June Hopkins, who turned 90 on November 2, 2013, is as plainspoken and direct as that sign. She never planned to be operating a gift store on North Haven for over half a century, but that’s what happened. It certainly wasn’t a lack of ambition or confidence about making her way in the world that anchored her on the island’s landing, just above the ferry terminal, overlooking the Fox Islands Thoroughfare. That waterfront perch, in good times and bad, has been central in her long, rich life.

In a frank conversation about her two milestones—turning 90, and running the store for 60 years—Hopkins revealed that she stayed with the shop primarily because it let her raise her four sons on the island. It allowed her family to retain a place on that busy commercial waterfront, even as others have sold to summer folks and moved inland. And, despite a reputation for being a little severe, a little stern, Hopkins genuinely loves meeting and interacting with the people who visit and buy. So much so that she extends what she calls courtesy in-house credit: If a visitor wants to bring home that pretty piece of pottery or those pillows bearing the map of the Fox Islands, but doesn’t have the cash (she doesn’t bother with credit cards), Hopkins will tell her customers to send her a check when they get home.

It hasn’t always been an easy or a blessed life. Four tragedies loom large—the death of a child by drowning, the death of a husband, and the death of two grandchildren, all before they’d lived what obituaries call a full life.

Is it true, as those who know her say, that she’s a strong, maybe even a tough woman?

“I had to be,” she says. But here it is, perhaps the most telling thing she will betray about herself: Instead of an expression of world-weary resignation, what follows those words as she leans forward are the beginnings of an impish smile on her lips, a twinkle in her still-clear hazel eyes.


June outside her gift shop on North Haven
June outside her gift shop on North Haven. (Peter Ralston)


The building had belonged to her late husband Bill’s grandparents. Their oval portraits hang on a wall in what had been an ell of the store, looking like antiques for sale. Glancing up at the grandfather’s face, Hopkins says matter-of-factly, “I never met him.”

But she remembers the day Bill, an island native, came home from his job as principal of the school, “and he said, ‘We’re going to buy Grandfather’s store.’ ” It had been the W. S. Hopkins General Store. Even today, it’s easy to imagine islanders coming in for a sack of flour, a pair of work gloves, a half-keg of nails; heavy, clunky wooden drawers line a wall of the gift shop, a few with pieces chipped off, though all are painted a cheery white.

It had been a ship’s chandlery at one time—again, not surprising, given its proximity to the busy Thoroughfare.

Though it is indeed a gift shop in the classic sense, there is an aesthetic unlike what is found in stores that feature plastic lobsters and snow globes. A classical music radio station plays, and the place smells of balsam.

There are some of what would be described as “cute” items, but most are the sort of thing you would feel pleased to bring home as a gift for friends from your vacation on a Maine island: Deer Isle granite hot plates, Anne Kilham’s painted scenes on light-switch plates, some jewelry, lovely sea-blue pottery, tea towels with garden scenes, a few selected books. Nothing pretentious, mostly affordable, and spread out nicely in the ample space.

Hopkins still enjoys going to trade shows in Portland to be, as she says, “inspired” about what to sell.

“It’s all done by intuition,” she says of what she stocks. “My intuition.” Which may not be a by-the-book approach, she admits. “I think I’ve broken all the rules of retail,” such as her no-credit-card, send-me-a-check policy.

“I trust people,” she says. “I’ve only been stuck three times. And I get the nicest thank-you notes.”

She steps away from our conversation for an appointment nearby, but returns sooner than expected. As I wrap up a conversation I’d begun with a customer in her absence, Hopkins appears in the doorway, hands on hips, with a look that says Well, do you want to talk to me or not? I hustle back in.

She’s ready to tell the story of how she ended up on North Haven after growing up in Pittsburgh, a story that includes “the wife of a Vinalhaven undertaker.” Those hazel eyes must have spotted some confusion; she leans forward again, conspiratorially, and says: “This gets complicated.”

It was 1946, the war just ended.

“My father was an organist at a large church in Pittsburgh,” she says. He also taught organ and piano, and at the time, was “right at the top of his profession.”

Hopkins had completed her studies at the Pennsylvania College for Women and was looking forward to going on to Columbia University to get a degree in occupational therapy.

Through a member of the church, a connection was made for a summer job on an island off the Maine coast. This is where the undertaker comes in.

Hopkins—then known as June Collins—and another young woman traveled together to Rockland.

“We came by bus, and we missed the ferry to North Haven,” she recalled. “We must have looked bewildered, because a man asked us where we going,” and after hearing of the planned trip to North Haven, said: “Well, deah, you just missed the last boat to North Haven. The next boat isn’t until Monday.”

But he took pity on the women, and—something she says wouldn’t happen today—offered them another way to the island.

“We got into a smelly lobster truck, and he drove us to the public landing,” she recalled. The man secured a place for them on a boat heading to Vinalhaven.

“We went onto the boat, and into the fog. I was sitting on the bow and I couldn’t see anything,” she said. Finally, the boat landed and she and her friend were deposited on a float.

“There’s a path,” the boat owner said. “Just follow it.”

At the house at the end of the path—where the undertaker lived—calls were made, and the man who had agreed to hire June and her friend to work as waitresses at inns on North Haven was reached. “I’ve got your two girls over here,” their temporary Vinalhaven host told Herman Crockett—later known to the girls as “Uncle Herm.”

The girls finally arrived on North Haven.

“Guess where we landed?” she asks, then points to the small dock we are looking down on from the deck of her living space above the store.

*          *          *

“I met my husband my first day on the island,” she says, her tone suggesting it was fate-ordained. And maybe it had to be. “It was quite separated,” she said of those days, “islanders and summer people.” The courtship took some time.

Expecting to work at Haven’s Inn, Uncle Herm, on learning that she was college-educated, said she would instead work in the post office. (She later figured out that Uncle Herm had hired too many girls.) Quickly realizing that she wouldn’t earn extra cash through tips, much needed for further study at Columbia University in the fall, she objected, but Crockett agreed to pay her $20 a week, twice the $10 base pay she would have gotten at the inn, plus a room at Nebo Lodge.

She made friends fast, and one of those friends was island native Bill Hopkins.


June's son David, at left, with his mother and a customer at the gift shop.
June’s son David, at left, with his mother and a customer at the gift shop. (Peter Ralston)


In a photo from those early years, Bill poses with June and island buddies Neal Holt and Garry Valentine. Bill is standing on the front bumper of what looks like a pre–World War II car. Unlike the other men—Valentine is wearing a tie, white shirt, and suit coat, and Holt, what looks like a neat crewneck sweater—Bill wears jeans and a work shirt, the sleeves rolled up. There’s a certain manly recklessness to his stance, and it’s not just his perch on the bumper. If you were casting the part of Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road for a movie, Bill would’ve been a good choice.

“My husband loved the island,” June said. “He liked his boats,” she added, sketching in just a few words the picture of a man at home on the water and in the rugged, outdoor life that came with living year-round on an island.

Bill served in the submarine service during the war, yet he was also reflective and creative, writing a novel called Freeman Cooper. A publisher loved it, June recalls, but wanted him to change the last chapter. “Bill was really heartbroken,” she said, but refused.

It was published later as written, however, and he used a chapter called “The Fourth House” in a college creative writing class he taught through the University of Maine in Rockland. Bill also taught writing to lifers at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston.

June remembers beach parties: “No drinking,” she stressed. “Bill would take his guitar,” and they might use a horse and buggy to get to the shore.

“Everybody loved Bill,” she said. “He was kind to the older people” on the island.

Valentine, 86, who lives in Kennebunk but still summers on the island, remembers Bill as a pal.

“I was seventeen in 1945,” and because of the war, “there was just a few of us males left on the island.” The two began spending time together, typically on the water, lobstering and fishing for flounder.

After the war, Bill attended the University of Maine on the GI Bill, taking classes at its Brunswick campus, then in Orono. June said she and Bill kept in touch after that summer of ’46, as she resumed her education at Columbia University in New York. They married in 1948 at the end of his sophomore year. They lived in Orono, and June worked at Bangor State Hospital (now Eastern Maine Medical Center), doing the occupational therapy work for which she had trained. Then it was back to the island, although Bill was called back into service during the Korean War.

June, Valentine said, “is a very sensible person, a solid citizen.” But more than that, she was fun. “Bill and I would go out and play around in boats, and instead of waiting at home, she would come along.”

In that old photo, Valentine notes with a chuckle—and maybe a little pride—June can be seen holding his hand, not Bill’s.

*          *          *

Bill died in 1979 at age 54 of lung cancer. June was able to stay on the island.

“I was lucky,” she remembered. “I’d had the gift shop, and I had been very independent,” she said, remembering those difficult years. Her smile returns, though, as she relates how the business was incorporated. “I’m the president and the CEO.”

The old building, which is both home and business, is in constant need of maintenance, which June chips away at. Son David, who was able to retire in his 50s after 35 years working for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now runs the art gallery below the store. The gallery was first launched by David and his older brother Eric when they were teens.

Bill’s wasn’t the first untimely death to cloud June’s life. The couple’s son Stephen drowned in the Thoroughfare at just five and a half years old, she said, gesturing toward the water as she spoke—again, just off the family dock.

“It really affected my husband. That was terrible.” After a pause, June said, “I have this philosophy that life goes on. It has to.” The couple decided to have another child, and son Thomas was born. He lives on the island in the summer and winters in the Washington County town of Whiting.

In 2001, Will’s son Shandi died at the age of 31. And then in March 2013, a fourth family tragedy struck—Evan Hopkins, just 20, June’s grandson and Eric’s son, was killed in a pickup truck rollover on the island.

David, now living with his partner, David Wilson, just off that town landing in the complex of Hopkins buildings, remembers those tragedies. As with most families, the pain from these and other emotional traumas through the years have slashed through relationships, he said. The pain remains, but so do the deep ties between a mother and her four sons, and between the brothers.

The creativity that infused his life, and that of brother Eric, a nationally renowned painter, comes from both mother and father, David said. From June, the boys inherited a visual sense, he said.

“She’s taught me everything she knows,” he said, with a hint of irony.

Both parents supported their creative endeavors.

“Eric and I started a gallery when he was fifteen and I was thirteen,” he said. They went to their parents and told them their plans, and both gave the green light.

“We bought a bolt of burlap to cover the walls,” he remembered, “and made a good deal of money in our first summer.”

On a late September weekday all these years later, David’s and his partner’s pair of Chinese Crested “powder puff” dogs, yapping at every passerby, staff the gallery.

David’s relationship with June is complicated, he intimates.

“She speaks her mind,” he said, again with a bit of dramatic understatement.

Later, when we rejoin June, a bit late from lunch, he worries his mother will be irritated at our tardiness.

But instead, June is warm and smiling.

Living to 90 is an achievement, but so is running a business for 60 years—especially as a woman. June puts in context what it was like being a businesswoman in the 1950s in characteristic plainspoken terms.

“I grew into it,” she said. “It was nothing that was planned.” When they bought Bill’s grandfather’s building, “Bill said, ‘We can rent that to a college girl to run a business,’ and I said, ‘I can do that.’ ” And she did.

David remembers his parents hiring college-age girls to work at the shop and babysit him and his brothers during the summer months. “They admired her for being a businesswoman in the 1950s and ’60s,” and many came to a 50th reunion in 2004, David said.

*          *          *

“I was very adventuresome,” June said, and, as if proof were needed, added: “The day I graduated college, I was put on a train to California,” where she spent the summer working.

Steering the conversation away from the sadness of the past, June’s smile returns.

“I tell you, I had to be feisty,” what with all those boys. “It seemed even all our animals were male,” she said. Her mother was Armenian and emigrated to the United States in 1890 as that ethnic minority suffered systematic extermination in present-day Turkey. She inherited that “survivor” gene.

Her boys enjoyed island life and shared her adventuresome nature.

“It was wonderful because they weren’t into television or iPods,” she said. “They had time to explore.”

Eric thrived in the environment, bringing sensitivity with which to interpret its rugged, natural elements. June remembers him coming across a dried fish as a child and being fascinated. “He painted that,” she said—not a picture, but on the fish itself. “He was, like, four or five.”

Eric agrees with his mother’s memories of their formative years. Unlike many children today who are glued to screens, “We were the portable devices,” he said, exploring the island and the waters around it. “We had a sense of wonder,” he said.

Will, the oldest, lives in Eastport and runs the Cobscook Bay Resource Center, whose mission is to encourage resource management and sustainable economic development in the region. Will connects his work with his island boyhood. “It’s kind of hard to grow up on an island and not learn from the natural processes around you.”

Both Eric and Will cite self-reliance and resiliency as gifts from their mother.

These days, June lives on North Haven for six months and in Rockland the rest of the year. Even at the age of 90, life on those two rugged Penobscot Bay shores suits her. “I think you have to be self-sufficient,” she concludes. “People say, ‘I would love to live on an island,’ but they can’t handle it when the ferry doesn’t go.”

An outsider herself all those years ago, the lines now have blurred between summer folk and natives. Especially since summer people often go back five or six generations.

She grows a little wistful, pointing to a house on the Vinalhaven shore on what is known as Hopkins Point, where former Massachusetts governor and US senator Leverett Saltonstall summered, and remembers seeing lights blink on in the house one night, signifying his arrival in Maine.

“I think I’ve mellowed,” she said. “Some of the things I took so seriously, I should have had more of a good humor about.” She also recalls a moment in the 1980s during a visit with her father: “Holding on to Daddy’s arm, and him saying, ‘You know, you’ve had a very interesting life. More than your mother and me, and we’ve had a very happy life.’ That made me feel very good.”

Looking down on the busy landing, the flinty June reemerges for a moment. “I’m determined that we not lose this,” she said. “I think one of the things that keeps me going is the gift shop.”

After all these years, she is a North Haven fixture, an islander by default who landed with the requisite grit for the life that awaited her.