General Hospitality

A home-furnishings store is Maine event for Genie Francis

Dressed in an oversize denim work shirt, pants, and sandals, Genie Francis doesn't look much like Laura, the tender teen whose 1981 TV wedding to Luke drew the largest daytime audience in history. But then, she isn't trying to.

Francis is 44 now, and busy embarking on her second act as a shopkeeper in, of all places, Maine.

The flaxen-haired actress whose girlish grin once graced the cover of Newsweek magazine has just opened a home-furnishings store in Belfast, a picturesque harbor town in mid-coast Maine where she lives with her husband, actor Jonathan Frakes , and their two children.

"I've always loved interior design," says Francis, sitting on a white couch crowded with pillows at the store she opened in July. "And I really love Maine."

But she'll be leaving next week, if only for a while. ABC has announced that Francis is returning to "General Hospital" this fall to mark the 25th anniversary of Luke and Laura's wedding, a TV event -- no, phenomenon -- that attracted 30 million viewers. Her reunion with Anthony Geary, the actor who plays Luke on the soap opera, will air during the November sweeps.

"I'm excited to go back to the show," Francis said, "but my focus right now is the store."

Francis and Frakes, who may be best known as Commander Riker on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," met in 1983 on the set of a TV series called "Bare Essence," and were married in 1988. For several years, they split their time between New York and L A , spending summers in Maine. A year ago, they moved to Belfast year-round.

"Every time we'd go to the Bangor airport, we'd say, `Why are we leaving? What are we going back for?' " says Frakes.

The appeal, it turns out, is not just the place -- the rocky coast, the Victorian architecture, the lack of traffic -- but also the people.

"We know everybody by name here and they know us," says Francis. "And they don't care who we are."

Located on Route 1 in East Belfast, the store is called The Cherished Home , a name that Francis says reflects her commitment to family. The shop even resembles a residence, with themed rooms -- a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen -- occupying both floors of an 1890 house overlooking Penobscot Bay. (Francis won't say what it cost to buy and rehab the building, which for many years was Hall Hardware & Trading Co.)

An inveterate antiquer who's been scavenging objets d'art all her adult life, Francis had considered selling only rarities and relics, but then she took a look around. If Maine has a growth industry, it may be antique dealers.

"I said, `This is nuts,' " recalls Francis. "I knew I couldn't do it any better."

Instead, she decided to sell a few antiques -- mostly wooden pieces such as end tables and dressers -- supplemented by new things: wing chairs, bedding, window ware, jewelry, and other accessories that weren't available in Belfast, Camden, or Rockland.

Cozy and decorated in shades of sherbe t -- pink and blue are the former soap star's favorite colors -- the store is well stocked with cottage-style items from Annie Selke's Berkshires-based companies Pine Cone Hill, Potluck Studios, and The Dash & Albert Rug Co . There are carpets and duvet covers, fleece robes, and leopard-print PJs.

"I love Annie's stuff," says Francis, stroking a flower-pattern puff. "I love cotton, I love chintz, and I love color."

Francis is the buyer for the store, but she isn't always around. With a 12-year-old son, Jamo , a 9-year-old daughter, Eliza , a husband who's sometimes out of town filming, and her own impending return to "General Hospital," Francis has other demands on her time. Still, her blue Dodge Dakota pickup is often parked in the shop's gravel lot.

"Being a wife and a mother is very gratifying," Francis says, "but it's not a creative expression and that's something I need to be happy."

She knows her celebrity status might attract a few customers to the store, but she isn't counting on it. Asked about her fame, Francis, who was 19 when Laura married Luke, just laughs. It's not something she thinks a lot about.

"I remember being in Atlantic City once when I was 18 or 19, and a sea of people were screaming and pulling their hair because I was there. It was weird. Nobody deserves adulation like that," she says. "I tried to explain it to my kids once. I said, `Mommy used to be kind of cool, kind of like a Britney Spears.' And they could relate to that."

Francis left "General Hospital" not long after the wedding in 1981 -- in classic soap fashion, her character disappeared into a dense fog -- but she returned to the fictional town of Port Charles in 1993 before leaving again in 2002. Laura was last seen in a straitjacket headed for a psychiatric hospital in London.

"As you can see, I'm a lot like Laura," jokes Francis, who has no idea what the show's writers have planned this time around.

Her customers in Maine, meanwhile, seem more interested in her role as a budding local businesswoman.

Mary Brett, who lives in nearby Stockton Springs, has been to The Cherished Home several times since it opened. On a recent afternoon, Brett, who's in pharmaceutical sales, was perusing the sheets, shams, and martini glasses.

"Genie's a breath of fresh air," said Brett. "I know she's an actress on a soap opera, but to me she's the one with really good taste."

by Mark Shanahan