The space between Christmas and New Year’s often feels like the lull between two songs where the world gets to collect its breath. John Reny, a musician, gardener, and owner of Renys department stores, has been a part of the frenzy of the holiday spirit in Damariscotta, and the lives of Mainers, for a long time.
The Renys mainstay storefront in Damariscotta was founded in 1949 by Reny’s father, R.H. Reny, and now has 17 locations around the state and 500 employees.
Two years after the business’s founding, John Reny was born at what is now LincolnHealth’s Miles Campus in Damariscotta. He grew up on Biscay Pond in Damariscotta in the home located on the property of modern day Biscay Orchards with his two younger brothers, Bob and Mike Reny.
A few other families and institutions have stood the test of time in Lincoln County, such as Lincoln Academy, where four generations of the Reny family have passed through its halls. Reny, the third generation of his family to attend LA, was a basketball player at the school and student council president his senior year as a member of the class of 1969.
Part of what’s made the Renys business model special and successful, according to John Reny, was R.H. Reny’s attention to his customers and what the communities needed their stores were in. This philosophy is something the company continues to hold dear to this day, John Reny said.
The company and the family that owns it has tried to do its part in keeping downtown Damariscotta viable by maintaining its presence and keeping popular shops open there. For example, Reny said the family owns the building the post office is in and that they’re able to keep the rent low enough to keep it there, which is also the case for other buildings on Main Street.
“It’s pretty easy to just go, ‘well, whatever,’ and then you end up with a downtown full of things that don’t mean anything,” Reny said.
In the early 2000s before the company moved from its old warehouse on School Street in Damariscotta to the current location on Route 1 in Newcastle, John Reny had a choice to make. He and his brother Bob Reny, the vice president of the company at the time, had to make a decision about moving their smaller downtown location, Renys Underground, off of Main Street to their warehouse on School Street, which is slightly larger.
They made the decision to keep the historic storefront where it was, according to John Reny, despite the move making sense.
“Over the years we’ve tried to do the right thing, maybe not the smartest thing,” Reny said, laughing. “But we’re doing okay, so it’s all right – what goes around comes around.”
However, Reny, who is nearing 20 years as the head of the company, wasn’t always sold on the idea of joining the family business. His first love was music. His mother, like his grandmother, was a gifted and prolific pianist, and while Reny took lessons, he didn’t keep up with it.
“I wish I had,” Reny said. “It’d be nice to sit down and pluck something out.”
While the love of music was in the family, it didn’t strike a chord with Reny until his father brought home a Stella acoustic guitar for him when he was a kid.
Reny remembers learning how to play the guitar, taking lessons down in South Bristol, and said that’s where it all began for him.
“I became a wannabe rock ‘n’ roll star,” Reny said.
Throughout high school, college, and his adult life, Reny has been a part of bands he’s helped put together and played throughout the area and state. His first band was named Us, but perhaps his most locally famous band was any of the iterations of The Round Pond Rangers.
According to Reny, the earliest iterations of the Rangers formed in the early 1970s, but he’s played off and on with different members for the last 50 years, and that playing with others is what it’s all about.
“I’m not a practicer,” Reny said. “If I have people to play with I play, but I never sat there and played scales, which is how you get really good.”
Reny’s band in college played at the University of Maine’s first-ever Bumstock in the 1970s – an annual music festival capturing the free spirited energies of the time at Woodstock.
“It was totally unsanctioned,” Reny said.
According to the University of Maine’s website, Bumstock happened annually until 2006 where the event stopped due to funding issues.
While Reny was at the University of Maine pursuing a degree in sociology, working for his father was last on his mind, but once he graduated in 1974, his dreams of becoming a full-time musician started to take a backseat.
“After not being a rock and roll star and not making any money doing that, I started doing maintenance and carpentry work for my father,” Reny said.
It wasn’t long before R.H. Reny had John Reny working in Bath in 1976, where he eventually managed the store.
Reny said he found that from growing up around the business, he was pretty good at helping with the store, and doubled down in his efforts.
“After a while you figure out you can do some things good, and other things not very good,” Reny said. “And you probably ought to stick with the things you can do pretty good and it turned out I knew how to work to store, do it pretty well, and didn’t mind doing it.”
While Reny isn’t out playing gigs as much as he used to, he still plays with friends at least once a week on Thursdays.
When he isn’t playing music, fulfilling his duties with the company, or spending time with his grandchildren, Reny is tending to his garden at his home in Round Pond where he lives with his wife, Kathleen.
Reny loves gardening and growing his vegetables, almost as much as he loves making connections within the community his family has held dear and helped maintain for generations.
“It’s rewarding,” Reny said. “Whatever you sow, you’re going to get.”
(Do you have a suggestion for a “Characters of the County” subject? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Characters of the County.”)