Steve Carell on Aisle Five

For years, celebrities– like the guy from Aerosmith– have flocked to Marshfield to fade into the idyll of this South Shore hamlet. But ever since Steve Carell bought the old general store, the townsfolk have been in an uncharacteristic tizzy.

Illustration by Heather Burke

Illustration by Heather Burke

Celebrities might be, with special thanks to Us Weekly for so successfully working the phrase into the American vernacular, just like us. But they generally don’t make the best of neighbors. In the past few years, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lindsay Lohan, Lauren Conrad, and Rihanna, among others, have been threatened with lawsuits or injunctions by their unfamous blockmates for such things as property damage, disturbing the peace, bringing their overbearing MTV camera crews home with them, using other people’s front lawns as parking lots, et cetera. That’s why most small towns that manage to successfully adjust to a celebrity newcomer end up becoming magnets for other famous people. This has been the story in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Carmel, California, the latter a city that once, in the ’80s, elected Clint Eastwood as mayor. Dirty Harry served a single term before the townsfolk realized exactly what they’d done.

Closer to home, the South Shore town of Marshfield, population 25,000, has developed a reputation for being particularly celebrity-friendly, a place where regular people (“civilians” in gossip mag–speak) and their more fabulous brethren can coexist in peace—a sort of Sun Valley of the East. Most residents describe Marshfield as an open, welcoming, low-key town where celebrities are treated no differently from anyone else. “Nobody’s starstruck,” says Brad White, who’s lived there for 20 years. “We have so many fun, vibrant, artsy people in general that we just look at celebrities as a regular part of our community.” The more notable residents have included Animal Planet host Jeff Corwin, former Congressman Joe Kennedy, defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, NFL players Ryan Gibbons and Sean Morey, a long list of writers and artists of moderate fame, and three members of the band Aerosmith, who for years have been allowed to wander the streets in skinny jeans, undisturbed.

And yet despite the seeming lack of notice paid to such boldface names, something different—something quite un-Marshfieldian, in fact—has marked the town’s embrace of Steve Carell, its newest celebrity. As a television and movie actor, Carell plays characters so awkward they’re nearly unwatchable, whether he’s making off-color jokes as The Office‘s boobish Michael Scott, suffering through a chest-hair wax in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or French-kissing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the Get Smart remake. In real life and onscreen, he’s unassuming and average-looking. He’s the kind of guy who’d wear Banana Republic corduroys to red carpet events; his shirts are by Vineyard Vines. “I have no demons,” Carell has said. “I’m as boring a person as you’ll meet.”

And yet, the people of Marshfield can’t get enough of him. In 2005, the year The Office debuted on NBC, Carell and his wife, Nancy Walls, an actress raised in Cohasset, bought their first place in Marshfield as a getaway from the Los Angeles home they share with their two young children. The family was soon a local fixture over holidays and summer weekends. Instantly, Marshfield was transformed, transfixed; Carell’s every move chronicled via word of mouth as he made his way through the coastal town on foot (he jogs) or by car (a Volvo SUV). Internet chatter focused on banal reports of Carell shopping for luggage and shoes at the Pembroke Kohl’s, sitting down to lunch at the Green Harbor Lobster Pound, and playing in the yard with his son. If he so much as urinated in a stall at a Marshfield restaurant, it became a matter of public discourse. Everyone had a Steve Carell story, even those who’d never met him, which is most of the people in Marshfield. Yet rather than seek to avoid the attention, Carell seemed to embrace the town right back. He’s fully aware that he’s an object of fixation, but insists it’s not discomforting; in fact, quite the opposite. “I am obsessed with the people of Marshfield,” he says. “I hope they don’t feel weird about that.”

The boldest manifestation of the love affair came this past January, when news broke that the 46-year-old actor had bought the 156-year-old Marshfield Hills General Store, a faded yellow and white Colonial-style storefront attached to the post office on Prospect Street. Carell’s $575,000 purchase got him not just an 800-square-foot space ripe for selling homemade muffins and assorted knickknacks, but also the heightened affection of his already adoring local fan base. (As one online commenter swooned, “Anyone can buy stock…buying a ‘mom and pop’ store, and hiring relatives to run it, makes it so much more human.”) He put his sister-in-law, 13-year Marshfielder Tish Vivado, in charge of day-to-day operations and seven employees.

The Marshfield Hills General Store does what a general store should, providing everything you’d need for a picnic, power outage, or last-minute hostess gift. Neighbors who have chickens sell their eggs. There are things like wineglass charms and cute games for kids and pets, as well as prints by local artist David Brega. Vivado chooses what to stock, with input from her brother-in-law boss, whose directives have included making the store young, fun, and community-oriented. “Steve has a lot of opinions,” Vivado says. “He has many ideas for the direction the store could go in. He calls all the time. He didn’t just buy it to not be involved.” His first order of business was a full-on (though by all accounts tasteful) renovation, currently in progress, meant to help preserve the original structure.

Over the past few months, the store has seen traffic from shoppers seeking penny candy and a Steve Carell sighting. On the way in they may breeze right past Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who frequently can be seen tapping out songs and humming to himself on the front porch. Sometimes visitors come in solely to ask if Carell is working. “People have traveled from all over the country,” not to mention from right across town, says Vivado.

Which, of course, is the irony. The general store, in historic terms, is itself a symbol of the unchanging New England small town. It’s meant to be practical, unflashy, and basic. It is, quite plainly, everything that celebrity is not. The very act of a megastar’s getting involved with a general store—even with the best intentions—changes its character in some inevitable ways. For one, the Marshfield Hills General Store is undoubtedly more of a focal point in town than it used to be. According to the Marshfield Building Department, its renovations will cost around $250,000; it has been name-checked in Us Weekly; it is gaining a national notoriety that, at least in the eyes of some residents, it neither needs nor wants.

There are nine villages within Marshfield, and several have their own general store—the Brant Rock Market, the Green Harbor General Store, and so on. Marshfield Hills, whose self-declared nicknames include both “The Hills” and “02051” (not making this up), is known for being the most steeped in history. The main road of the village, Prospect Street, was once the thoroughfare used by Pilgrims traveling from Plymouth to Boston, and equestrian types can still be spotted clip-clopping their horses up and down the street. Many houses here are more than 200 years old.

According to Brad White, there are over 4,000 dogs in Marshfield, and he owns three of them. White also loves his celebrity neighbors. “Every year, Steven Tyler is one of my first trick-or-treaters,” he says. “One year he dressed like Elvis. Another year he was just Steven. He likes candy, too.” White describes the general store as a place where people help each other, like when someone needs a baby-sitter. “I always say, ‘If you know one person, you know 3,000 at the general,'” he says.

As a kid growing up in Concord and Acton, Carell would often go with his parents to a general store in Sudbury called Boker’s. Mr. Boker stocked bins of penny candy, household staples, and simple toys, and poured a good cup of coffee—or so Carell’s parents said. There was a single gas pump out front. “I have always had such fond memories of that store,” says Carell. “Sadly, while I was still a boy, Mr. Boker passed away, and the store closed. The town lost something, and so did our family.” And so when he learned through Vivado that the Marshfield Hills General Store was for sale, he “jumped at the chance” to buy it. “The place is a Marshfield landmark,” he says. “A needed gathering spot. A real sense of community lives here. My wife and I thought that preserving such a place was important.” Indeed, Carell is far more earnest and sober-sounding than one might expect of a comedian who once declared that the key to great acting is performing in underpants full of warm oatmeal. He might be the most famous person in town, but he’s quite possibly the most normal, too.

Incidentally, the store didn’t entirely need all the preserving Carell had in mind. Previous owners Sherry and Bob Bechtold had operated it for seven years, and during that time renovated the property in the classic, old-fashioned general store model. When the Bechtolds put the building on the market last fall, they hadn’t actually intended to sell the business—just the building, and Sherry planned to continue managing the store—but the offer that Carell made was contingent on the owners’ releasing the entire property. When the Bechtolds found out who it was (and how much he was offering), they vetted his intentions, and Sherry says the decision was obvious. It didn’t make selling any less difficult, though. “It was what I did 24/7, and being in the center of the world there, you know everybody and everybody knows you,” she says, more than once adding, “I’m still not really over it.” She wistfully recounts hearing a voice yelling up to her from her front porch not long after the sale. It was Steven Tyler, who’d been away. “He wanted to see how I was doing,” she remembers.

On a rainy Friday at the start of summer, a trio of old men is perched outside the entrance to the store. They’ll be there again tomorrow, and Sunday. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and already the place is jam-packed with tourists and their broods, busy pawing the candy jars. Near the $5 greeting cards and cat collars and lip gloss is a small display of Office merchandise, including autographed Dunder Mifflin hats and T-shirts. “You can tell a real Office fan because they know what this means,” says Vivado, holding up an XXL tee that reads “Shrute Farms Beets.” (At Carell’s insistence, Vivado does not charge extra for any items that he autographs.)

Like most people, Vivado describes her brother-in-law—her sister Nancy’s husband—as a Mr. Everyman sort of guy. “He’s just a down-to-earth, nice, nice person,” she says, adding that many folks come into the store expecting to run into Michael Scott, Carell’s onscreen alter ego. Though Carell is a famously adept ad-libber (it’s a skill he picked up during his stint on The Daily Show), there will be no impromptu standup at his general store. The burden placed on comedians—more than with any other kind of performer—is that we expect them to be funny, and on, all the time. No one’s waiting for Steven Tyler to break into song in the middle of a plateful of pancakes at Arthur & Pat’s. With Carell, however, there is the anticipation of being entertained by a guy who’s seemingly too “nice” to say no, too “normal” to mind, a circus animal on a country stage. Maybe that’s why the people of Marshfield seem so interested in getting close. Carell is so thoroughly approachable that it’s easy to imagine having him over for burgers. Our very own celebrity BFF. How great would that be?

In late June Carell stopped in to, as the locals tell it, stock shelves and run the register, just as he’d promised in a joking quote he gave to the Globe when he bought the place. Brad White wasn’t there, but he heard about it, and recounts the story as if it were his own. “He’s such a fun guy,” he says of Carell. “Gregarious. Low-key.” Vivado confirms that Carell was in town to check on the progress of the renovation, but that, no, he wasn’t stocking shelves. “It was totally impromptu,” she says. “He shook some hands. It was more of a quiet reaction.” The aftermath, however, was not so quiet. “People were in and out, ‘We heard Steve was here!'” she says. “One little kid spotted me in front of the store as he was driving by with his mother and made her slow down so he could yell, ‘Hey, wait a minute! Is Steve with you?'”

The truth is that Carell is not often in Marshfield, and when he does visit he’s not exactly parading around town kissing babies or petting one of those 4,000 dogs, nor is he manning the register or stocking shelves. Still, that he spent much of the summer filming a movie in New York has given residents reason to hope he’ll be around more. “I just drove by his house about a month ago,” admits Marshfield Chamber of Commerce head Rich Roberts without a hint of embarrassment, “and I thought, Is he home or not?”

And if he were? When it comes to celebrities, an element of be-careful-what-you-wish-for is advisable. In 2002, for example, rapper Nelly considered buying a Missouri town and renaming it Nellyville. That’s the thing about celebrities: They just don’t know when to stop. Which, of course, is generally why they became famous in the first place.

But signs point to a different sort of relationship with Carell. “How many people who live in Plymouth go out to Plymouth Rock?” says Roberts. “There’s a lot of buzz, sure, but Steve Carell buying the general store has helped people go back and remember, even in their own town, what they have.” He’s talking about the store, of course, but it really doesn’t matter.

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  • Greg

    Please…

  • Jay

    while quaint, I can see why it went under — its an under-sized convenience store/gift shop and its fairly quiet. We're talking 'big density' and high foot traffic.

  • bob

    Who knew? Very cool.

  • Olivia

    It's nice that Carell is being heralded in this story. But the other Steve, Steve Tyler, will always be the "real" Marshfield superstar

  • Crulp

    Alright guy, "Prospect St", yeah right guy, the general store/post office is on Old Main St, guy. I live like 100 yards away, bro, on Pleasant Street, kid. Don't worry about it.

  • Eileen

    YOu may live down the street but the store is on Prospect.

  • Joe

    my wife and I just went to the Marshfield general Store. Great! It has a great aura. bought some cool “Office” stuff. Hope I see steve there sometime when i go againg this summer (2010). you al

  • Joe

    me again. some dwight shrute bobbles (and others) would be great. i may hve missed them.