Perhaps it is the peeling maroon paint or the sun-bleached yellow letters on the exterior. Maybe it is the broken tile floors or the aisles that are barely wide enough for a single cart to pass. Sitting prominently on Park Street for decades it is the quintessential college grocery store also like it came from a deleted scene in Animal House. Yes, there is only one food market that has been servicing stein fillers for decades, the one and only Orono Thirftway.
No one seems to remember exactly when Thriftway made its debut adjacent to the UMaine campus, but it has existed since at least the 1970′s in its current form and may have been another grocer prior to that time. Regardless of which decade you called upon Thriftway for service you could count on one thing, the alcohol selection outnumbering food items 2-to-1. Being the only grocer within walking distance of campus and the residential developments that line Park Street draws in a customer looking for products of the liquid type. There are only a few places in Central Maine where you can still find Bud Ice, Red Dog, and Natural (Nattie) Light in 30-racks along with dozens of other brands and always in stock. That is why we at Fill The Steins have crowned Thriftway as “The Unofficial Cheap Beer Mecca of the Known Universe.”
Through the years Thriftway has expanded its offerings to include hard liquor and inexpensive mixers; both staples of any college weekend plan. Those dimly light golden letters on the front of the building shined out like a beacon on a Friday night for the many students stopping for essentials. Knowing that 10 bucks could get you a handle of Popov vodka was information more valuable than the answers to any exam for a college student. The store was even laid out with the clientele in mind with beer in the front left corner and booze in the front right, easy in and out. I don’t think I actually made it to the back of the store until my junior year, apparently looking for fresh produce for some strange reason.
Bigger supermarkets have arrived in the area over the last few decades, mainly the IGA and Hannaford’s in Old Town. But there’s a certain no-frills grit that sets Thriftway apart from the other grocers and that still makes it the choice of many Black Bears. So the next time you are heading up Park Street between Orono and Old Town, stop in and say hello to my old friends, Captain Morgan and Mr. Popov, at the Orono Thirftway, a true UMaine institution.