Biddeford couple transform former Woolworth’s into performance center

The last rays of an early August sunset seep through the window of the old brick building and illuminate a young woman in a loose-fitting T-shirt finger-picking an acoustic guitar and wandering through lyrics in a sweet, raw voice.

The stage is a simple carpet sprawled across the floor and strewn with an old banjo, a couple mic stands and four speakers. A dozen or so people watch from folding chairs in enraptured silence, eating homemade veggie sandwiches and sipping wine and imported sodas.

For the last four years, two Biddeford residents, Gil and Coco Corral, have been working hard to put their small, formerly industrial city of 20,000 people on the map as a destination for underground songwriters from around the country. The Corrals began organizing shows in the area by hosting monthly concerts in the big barn at their home, a former swinery in Biddeford that quickly became known to the local arts community as “Hog Farm Studios.” This summer, the Corrals established a permanent home for their concert series, converting an abandoned space in the back of a building on Main Street into the “Hog Farm Studios Annex.”

Half a century ago, when textile manufacturing was thriving in Biddeford, the building was a Woolworth’s department store, but the store closed decades ago when the mills began facing cutbacks and Biddeford’s residents started moving away. In the years since, a shoe store and a burrito shop moved into the storefronts along the street, and the Southern Maine Boxing Club took over some of the massive building’s interior, but much of the rest of the building has remained empty.

At the beginning of April, the Corrals began to move into their new 800 square foot space in the building’s back right corner and cleared away mountains of dust, revealing the old Woolworth’s safe in one corner and an almost fossilized mouse skeleton in another. Nobody had touched the space since the department store closed. “It’s kind of a blank slate,” says Gil Corral.

A green wooden sign emblazoned with a levitating pig and the words “hfs annex—down the hall” now stands out on the sidewalk, directing customers through the building’s small, crumbling foyer and around the two tight corners that lead to the Corrals’ cozy domain.

The annex is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday for a variety of purposes. It’s a coffee shop with a growing menu of local and organic food and a meeting space for local activists and community groups, as well as serving a classroom for the Spanish club that the Corrals’ six-year-old daughter Chloe participates in. But it is the concerts that happen there every couple of weeks that make it unique.

At Hog Farm, the music is the center of everyone’s attention. “They’re artists and they put in so much time and energy,” says Coco Corral. “Our idea has always been to give them the same genuine respect that a gallery gives to visual artists.”  On one wall, exposed egg crate foam shapes the room’s acoustics, held in place by artfully nailed-up planks. Along another wall, sits a worn upright piano. After each performer finishes, Coco is quick to offer them a big hug. Musicians appreciate the atmosphere and come from all over the country to play there. “We could have gone to New York,” says Greg Besson, a songwriter from Boston who performed recently, “but it wouldn’t have been like this. Gil and Coco really are special people.”

The Corrals met 20 years ago at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where Gil was studying painting and Coco did metalsmithing and jewelry making. From there, they lived in Portland, Oregon for 12 years, before moving to Biddeford in 2004. “We decided that we were looking for something a little bit different,” says Coco, and Biddeford’s affordable cost of living, thriving community of artists and proximity to her parents’ home in Saco made it an attractive choice.

About a year ago, the Corrals opened their first business in Biddeford, a small boutique called “The Loving Anvil” where they sell clothing, art objects and even skateboards designed by friends of hers from around the country as well as Coco’s original line of jewelry. High-end art has only recently begun to find a market in Biddeford, but they stock a variety of affordable items and their reputation is growing. “Of course you have to make money,” says Coco, “but I want to do it in a way that feels good, hands down. And this feels good.”

On a typical summer afternoon, Coco and Gil might be found selling a hand-made sweatshirt at Loving Anvil, making a big crock of chili in preparation for a concert at Hog Farm Studios Annex or enjoying an outdoor community concert at the North Dam Mill, an old industrial building that’s being renovated into a shopping area and condo development. Their daughter Chloe is usually dancing somewhere nearby or receiving a music lesson from a visiting guitarist.

The Corrals have moved over a thousand miles twice in the last 15 years, but they seem to have finally found home. As Biddeford revives in the years to come, it seems likely that the Corrals and the spaces they operate will become pillars of this growing community. “We’ve made some incredible friends,” says Coco, “I don’t foresee moving.”

This article originally appeared in Working Waterfront magazine in September 2009. It has been edited slightly for style and tone.  After going through several transformations, the venue, which later became known as the Oak and the Axe, closed in the fall of 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *