Three employees of Uncle Pete’s Community Market hope to raise the funds to buy the store. From left: Yvette “Pixie” Grady, Kristina Strout and Hailey Pelkey-Graf at the kitchen’s order and takeout window. (Jerry Klepner photo)

Calling themselves “The Three Musketeers,” three women who work in the kitchen at Uncle Pete’s Community Market want to buy the store.

Kristina Strout, 54, Hailey Pelkey-Graf, 22, and Yvette “Pixie” Grady, also 22, said they love where they work and don’t want to see the store sold to strangers.

The trio of employees needs to raise money for a down payment toward the approximately $600,000 required to purchase the property and the business’s inventory from owner Pete Arnold, who put the market on Route 123 up for sale in January. The women said they’re exploring all options, from bank loans to personal loans to an online fundraiser.

Will Arnold sell the market to them if they can come up with the money to buy it?

“They’re my number one choice, absolutely,” Arnold said.

With a caveat.

“It’s not a done deal because I don’t want to send away any prospective (outside) buyers,” Arnold said. “The continuity would be great. Their vision is the same as mine. They’re all here (in Harpswell) and not from away.”

Strout recently took a few minutes away from the kitchen, where she typically can be found preparing takeout orders. A delicate cross hung from her neck over an orange T-shirt.

“I truly believe if this is meant to happen, that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” she said. “I believe I have a purpose and part of my purpose is taking care of my community.”

Pelkey-Graf said she has worked at the store for Arnold and its previous owner since she was 16. “Everybody in the community is so giving and caring for each other, so I want to keep being involved in that,” she said.

Harpswell “is a very tight-knit community,” she added. “The reason we’re here is to support the community.”

Their goal to buy the store won’t affect any other offers, noted Strout. “Pete has been very supportive,” she said. “If I can’t get this to work, I’ll continue to work for Peter until he sells. I want to be able to do what I love to do and make a little money.” And she wants her junior colleagues to get a head start in the business while they’re young.

Are they confident they can raise the funds?

“I was very upset when I found out Pete was selling,” said Grady, whose parents own Two Coves Farm on Harpswell Neck. “I was very nervous about it changing hands and the impact it would have on the store.” She said it is “really important to at least try” to buy it. “It’s scary but I want to do it.”

If they’re able to buy the market, the women said that while they learn the business, they’ll likely continue working in the kitchen, whipping up homemade soup and making sandwiches and pizza. And Arnold likely will continue working, with shorter hours so he can travel. “If the girls take it, they’ve asked me to stay,” he said. “All I want is to be paid fair like I pay them.”

Arnold has said he won’t sell to just anyone. It has to be someone who has his vision, loves the community, keeps the employees on the payroll, and will continue to sell gas and diesel from the store’s 1989-model pumps. He said he already has turned down four offers.

Strout said she knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of support. In August 2019, she whacked her head on a lobster boat’s trap rack, compressing and shattering two cervical spine vertebrae. The entire community reached out to her to raise money while she was recuperating. Now she wants to give back to the community.

How long is Arnold giving the women to come up with the money? “That’s open as long as it’s moving forward,” he said.

Connie Sage Conner is a retired editor of The Virginian-Pilot. She lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.