Snapshot of a small Maine business

Wholesaler Ray Trombley (in dark-blue sweatshirt) taking care of business at Casco Bay Shellfish. Photo by James Rudolph

In total, Ray Trombley has spent 30 years making his living on the Maine coast. His career has taken him from digging clams to selling them wholesale at the establishment he owns – Casco Bay Shellfish in Brunswick, Maine.

These days, as if that business weren’t already difficult enough, there’s the added stress of a pandemic, which for months now has deprived him of his restaurant clientele, the main drivers of his income. The married father of 11 kids – eight biological and three adopted – is not only hustling to replace lost income, but he’s also dealing with the chaos of his kids staying home from school. Needless to say, his days are long.

High school sophomores Sam Cassidy and Declan Lay are part of a network of fishermen that Trombley buys from. Photo by James Rudolph

“I spend anywhere from eight to 16 hours a day here,” he said, nodding in the direction of the small shop behind him. Stacks of empty orange and gray trays lined the walls. They were ready to be filled with clams, lobsters and more. “I was here for 14 hours yesterday. That includes the roadtrip to get the lobsters.”

Trombley told his story in between puffs of a Pall Mall that poked out from beneath a mustache. He had salt-and-pepper hair, and wore faded jeans and dirty boots. Beyond restaurants, he said, the product he bought from local diggers and fishermen normally went to area grocery stores. On weekends, he sold his shellfish to locals.

Trombley’s fresh catch was supplied in part by two Brunswick high school sophomores. About 10 minutes away from Ray’s storefront on Thomas Point Road, Sam Cassidy and Declan Lay stood in a stream that flowed sluggishly through the muddy sand of Maquoit Bay. The tide was receding and they were ready to start digging. Both wore hoodies and tall rubber boots. They sold their clams at 25 cents each to fill the totes in Trombley’s shop. How many could the two enterprising young men harvest in a day? “Maybe a thousand,” Lay said, holding a rope tied to the front of a canoe. He and Cassidy would tug it along the stream to where the tide ebbed.

Neither young man envisioned a future in the business. “It hurts,” said Cassidy, standing behind the canoe. For now, though, it was a decent way to earn money, something they’d probably do until they went to college.

Wholesalers like Trombley lament the loss of hard workers like these two, who could potentially fill the ranks of those aging out of the industry. “That age group is what we need to get the harvest going again. The older guys aren’t doing it as hard as they used to.”

But he didn’t blame the two for wishing to avoid the grueling labor required to make a living harvesting shellfish. He’d endured hard times in his own career. He’d once lost his shellfish license for a year. He’d dug in sub-zero weather. He’d chopped through ice that was four feet thick and made $150 because he didn’t know if the weather would permit him to work the next day. He’d dealt with red tide and flood closures.

“I’ve been right down and out, no money at all. But I came back.”

This particular weekend, though, his retail business was brisk. Locals came with cash to pay for fresh seafood.

One of these locals was Josh Dionne, a father of two. He and his wife juggled running a marketing agency while making sure their two young children stayed on top of school work.

“The teachers are on our backs to make sure we’re emailing their homework,” he said. He admitted that it was tough keeping his homebound students focused. “Each day the class meets on Zoom. They’re all like, ‘Hey, here’s my hamster!’ and all the kids are going crazy so it seems like nothing is getting done.”

Selling to locals like Dionne was part of Trombley’s business plan, especially during a pandemic when his regular clients like Hannaford, Shaws and Walmart had stopped selling Trombley’s products. “We’re trying to get this stuff back out to the public so that they know it’s still available,” he said.

Trombley isn’t a native Mainer. He’s originally from upstate New York, near the Adirondacks. “I’ve thought about going back home, but there’s nothing there,” he said. “It’s an old mining village.” He first visited Maine when he came for a New Year’s Eve party, met a girl, and began harvesting clams with her stepfather. He’s lived in Maine ever since.

A steady flow of cars pulled up in front of Trombley’s shop. Elaine Brown, a lively older woman from Topsham, emerged from one of them. Brown lives with her husband and adult son who recently moved back home from California. “My son is more vegetarian. My husband can’t have milk products. Lobster is one thing we all enjoy,” she said.

Brown normally left the house on a whim to do errands, but in the time of pandemic a careful eye toward her health kept her mostly homebound. “Being the mother and the cook, I like to pop off to the store because I’ve thought of a recipe.”

One good thing about the lockdown, she said, was that it had brought her son home, a turn of events she treasured. “He’s learning to love Maine,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “And he found a girlfriend. He’s very social. He has met people from Portland.”

Before she left, Brown had Trombley remind her how long to boil lobsters. According to Trombley, the the lobsters in his shop at the time had fairly soft shells and would require less cooking time.

Trombley pointed across the street to where tall pines swayed in the breeze. “This shop will be here another year and then I’ll move across the road,” he said. His business had grown over the years. And, he opined, so had he. “I never had kids ’til I was 27. I partied a bit when I was younger. The kids, they put a stop to it.”

Asked what the highlights of his career were, no mention was made of anything business-related. Having children and getting married were his best moments.

Even in these challenging times, Trombley planned on holding course. He’d sell to the public on weekends while waiting for the wholesale market to eventually return. With a long journey already behind him, he was ready for whatever lay ahead.

“I started at the bottom,” he said, scuffing the toe of his boot on the ground and twisting it into the dirt. “And now I feel like I’ve risen to the top. So when I look back 50 years, I can say I’m pretty content. I have no regrets.”

James Rudolph is a native Mainer who wants to tell – in their own words – the fascinating stories of seemingly ordinary people.