Many things have changed in the nearly 90 years since Perry’s Nut House first opened its doors on Route 1 in Belfast.
But the nuts — and the nuttiness — have been constants.
“Every year it’s a little different, but kind of the same,” said George Darling, the store’s current proprietor.
Nuts, as the name implies, are at the heart of the store’s history. Founder Irving L. Perry was originally in the cigar business, churning out a million of them at his Belfast factory in 1902.
By the 1920s, Perry was spending winters in warmer climates. A pecan grove in Georgia, which he had invested in, produced a bumper crop that was likely to go to waste until he decided to ship the nuts to Maine and sell them there.
Perry’s Nut House opened for business in its founder’s former cigar factory on May 27, 1927. An avid traveler, Perry added unique items obtained on his trips to the store, such as an alligator hide and a water buffalo that reportedly was shot by Teddy Roosevelt.
Postcards from the early days of the business touted the store as the “Most Interesting Place on the Maine Coast.”
Perry died in 1940 and the store was taken over by Joshua Treat III. He served in the Navy during World War II, and through his travels brought back even more one-of-a-kind finds for the store: a man-eating clam, an albatross from the South Seas and a gorilla from Africa.
The latter two items are still in the store today. “Ape-raham” the gorilla, was lovingly restored by a taxidermy class at Nokomis High School in Newport several years ago. Now it is nearly the first thing visitors see when they walk through the store’s front door.
On a stroll through the store, Darling highlighted all of the Nut House’s offerings, from magnets to shot glasses and T-shirts to backscratchers.
“We’re always known for our backscratchers,” he said. “You want a backscratcher, you come in here.”
The T-shirt offerings include shirts that play on the store’s name (“I got my nuts at Perry’s Nut House”) to the tailored-for-tourists-yet-slightly-risqué: one such shirt reads, “Great legs, great body, great tail” — all above a picture of a lobster.
Nuts available at the store include pistachios, almonds, pecans, cashews and Brazil nuts, among others. The store also offers local tasty treats such as maple syrup and various flavors of homemade jams.
Nuts and one other food offering are among the top draws for store customers, according to Darling.
“People come in here for the fudge and the nuts,” he said.
Darling said the store offers 47 flavors of fudge, some of which are seasonal. Among the top favorites are caramel sea salt, Black Forest fudge and whoopie pie fudge.
“Peanut butter is on the top of the list,” he said. “Any combination with peanut butter, and anything with peanut butter in it.”
In a decade of ownership, Darling said he has seen fudge sales soar from about 3,800 pounds a year to close to 13,000 pounds today.
Darling said Perry’s is the kind of store where people don’t mind being teased and joked with. Watching him interact with customers one morning early in the season, it was easy to see what he meant.
“That’s a caribou,” he said, pointing to a stuffed animal head mounted on a wall near “Ape-raham.” “I had to run that thing down and tackle it. And with the gorilla, I stood there and I said, ‘Make my day.’”
Outside the store, visitors can have photos taken with a wooden lobsterman or “Nutzy” the squirrel.
The store is an especially fun place for children, with a funhouse mirror, fake dog doo-doo and toys to try out by hand.
“This is not a library,” Darling told one rather quiet child on a recent visit. “You’re allowed to make noise here.”
“You don’t know how loud he can be,” said the boy’s mother.
“This is a place where you’re allowed to drive parents nuts,” said Darling with a smile.