At Abacus, Sal Scaglione and Dana Heacock have supported art and craft for more than four decades.Leaning forward, arms on legs, a man observes the passersby on the cobblestone streets outside the window. A row of calendars adorns the wall behind him. Nearby, a turquoise station wagon with wood-paneled doors, carrying a pair of painted surfboards on its roof, is heading toward a weathered sign. This is the dreamland gift world called Abacus: We are the passersby, and the man is a figure made of wire. The station wagon is toddler-sized. The sign reads, “We travel the world over in search of what we need, and return home to find it.”
Abacus cofounders Dana Heacock and Sal Scaglione have provided a home for art and handcrafted items for more than four decades. They now have stores in five Maine locations. Heacock and Scaglione met in 1969 as first-year students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. Heacock was taking art courses. Scaglione, who grew up in Ohio, was studying architecture. “I used to lie on my stomach in the living room and pretend I was designing things with undersides of furniture,” says Scaglione. “Putting things together and building things mentally and physically with little parts—thinking there must be something wrong with me. Until I went to RISD, where I found people who thought like I did.”
On a break from school in 1971, the pair travelled to Bennington, Vermont; Heacock’s family had moved there from Farmington. There they opened their first store, in an eight- foot-wide space that had previously been a taxi-dispatch stand. To stock it, they convinced their fellow RISD students to sell their art on consignment. “We had no money,” says Scaglione. “We cobbled together the interior by taking out a staircase, and our landlady gave us permission to take down her chicken coop—we used the boards to cover the walls.”
They called the store Abacus. “We liked the idea of the texture and the visuals of an abacus,” says Scaglione. “We joked about it, because it began with an A and a B, and I said we can always be first in the phone book.” Ironically, Abacus did not have a listing in the telephone directory, because they could not afford a phone. “There was a phone booth outside our door, and we gave people that number,” says Scaglione. “People walking by would hear the phone ringing and answer it, and somebody would say, ‘You see that little door over there, could you go in and ask the two guys in there if they could come out to the phone?’”
Back at RISD, Heacock convinced Scaglione to accompany him on a visit to his home state. Born at Portland General Hospital (now Maine Medical Center), Heacock grew up summering at his grandparents’ house on Ocean Point in Boothbay Harbor. Heacock and Scaglione borrowed a Volkswagen Beetle that belonged to their classmate’s boyfriend, and headed up the coast on a bitter February day. Heacock thought they could sleep at his grandparents’ house. Unfortunately, it was boarded up, and the key was nowhere to be found. They drove around in the car all night, in order to stay warm. “As we left Boothbay Harbor, I said, ‘I really did love it, and I’ll be back again, I’m sure,’” says Scaglione.
Scaglione and Heacock soon opened their first Maine store in Boothbay Harbor. For several years, they lived in the 150-square- foot stockroom in the back of the store. “We used to take our showers down at the local marina, at the outdoor pay showers, because we didn’t have those facilities in our building,” says Scaglione. “Every morning we’d take our quarters and go down. If the water was cold, it didn’t matter, because we only allotted one quarter for the day. That was it.”
Abacus became known for high-quality products—jewelry, glass lamps, and handcrafted wooden boxes—many of which were made by local artisans. Customers bought them not only for themselves, but also as gifts for weddings, birthdays, and baby showers. Their success allowed Scaglione and Heacock to move to a larger store in Boothbay Harbor, and eventually expand to locations in Portland, Freeport, and Kennebunkport.
Scaglione indulged his early love of architecture to participate in designing and building these spaces—each of which has its own distinct style. With its exposed-brick interior walls, the store in Portland has an urban feel, while the
Freeport store resembles a classic Maine cottage. The latest location is in Ogunquit, in a space that used to house a restaurant. “It’s been kind of fun being in Ogunquit because now it feels like we’re the anchor store right in the center of town,” says Heacock. “In a town like Freeport with 300 national retailers, we still feel like the two little kids playing store.”
Heacock has continued to engage in the artistic pursuits that first captivated him as a child. “When I was probably 13, 14 years old, I used to do charcoal drawings of area lighthouses and sell them,” he says. “My mom was a big influence on me. She was always painting and exhibiting her paintings in local outdoor artist shows.” Heacock creates the popular Abacus calendars, as well as fine art prints that are sold across the country.
Heacock and Scaglione still work in their stores regularly, spending time with customers and coworkers who, after almost half a century, have become friends. “What we do feels like this wonderful lifelong hobby,” says Heacock. He and Scaglione find satisfaction in knowing that they are making art accessible by offering pieces to fit any budget. “As the world moves more and more into a very techy place,” says Scaglione, “people are craving things that have a human connection.”