Groton - For Heather Bond Somers, mayor of the Town of Groton who was raised in Noank, the Universal Food Store on Pearl Street was a special place.
"I grew up shopping here,'' she said before the grand opening Saturday of the new Noank Community Market. The new co-op is replacing the Universal store which closed last September.
"Our parents would send us to the store and say, 'Charge it to our tab,'" she said.
She remembers riding her bike to the store, which always seemed to have a sandy floor and little kids running around naked. It was where she got her first taste of steak tartare and experienced her first crush - on the butcher's son.
"It's hard to describe growing up in a village,'' she said. "I've travelled all over the world for my job and I haven't found anything like this."
On Saturday, just before the grand opening, Bailey Pryor was putting the finishing touches on a coffee bar - once a swim platform from a boat. His son, 12-year-old Finn Pryor, was scraping stickers off the glass doors of new refrigerated cases.
In the 23,000-square-foot store, workers were roasting chickens and baking bread, stocking the to-go refrigerator and putting price tags on groceries already on the shelves.
Outside, hundreds gathered in the parking lot, awaiting a first glimpse of the nonprofit co-op, which offers wheat-free, gluten-free and organic products, as well as grocery staples, a butcher's counter, and fresh baked treats.
"The paint is still drying, so you have to be careful what you touch in there,'' Pryor told the crowd, just before Noank resident Stephen Jones cut a red ribbon with a giant pair of scissors.
Pryor, who is the president of the seven-member board of directors of the new co-op and one of the driving forces for getting the store opened, said the co-op has raised more than $250,000 during the past three months to make the store a reality.
The building, which was constructed in 1889 by ship builders and includes ship spars for supports, was gutted and rebuilt, from its shiny new tin ceiling and state-of-the art kitchen, to its new ramp, providing accessibility for the handicapped.
There are 430 co-op members, who each paid $175 to join. Members receive a 4 percent discount on purchases. The store employs 19 people.
"I've never seen anything like this,'' said store manager, C.J. Lewis, who clutched her chest and got a little teary-eyed just before the opening. "This is such a heartwarming event. The community has been so welcoming and so helpful. This is a special place. "
Lewis, who worked at a health food store in Mystic for 15 years, said she knew Noank was special when she came to a meeting of the newly formed co-op last winter at the Noank Baptist Church. Some in the community wanted to figure out a way to open a grocery store in the same spot where the Universal Food Store had stood for 64 years before closing in September.
"It was the middle of a huge snowstorm,'' Lewis said. "I thought no one would come.''
Instead, she was greeted by more than 100 people who pledged their support for a community grocery store.
"I was so touched,'' she said. "They wanted this store saved."
In September, following Tropical Storm Irene, the Universal closed. The lack of electricity for six days wiped out the inventory and the owners sold off what they could and shut the doors.
"That was sad,'' said Calvin Jacey, 11, who with his twin brother Weston and friends Henry Engvall and Will Robinson, both 12, used to frequent the Universal almost daily to buy Arizona iced tea, chips, and salami grinders.
Other shoppers also reminisced about the past.
"It's like old-time Noank,'' said Lori Calobrisi of Stonington, a member of the co-op who used to go the Universal store when her family kept a boat in Noank.
"This is such a beautiful community,'' she said. "You can come here and shop and take a beautiful walk by the water."
Lewis, the store manager, said Noank feels like a magical place.
"I know it's not Mayberry,'' she said, referring to the fictional television town where everything seemed idyllic. "But it's like it's from a different era. It's a special place."
The store is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.