Communities on the Corner
What country stores mean in today’s Vermont
Written onSeptember 01 , 2009
The local foods movement can claim its roots in Vermonters’ earliest enterprises. Long before ski vacations and the Golden Dome, there was boiling down maple sap and digging root crops for the winter. But food isn’t the only part of our local economy with a long pedigree. Our country stores have a history that stretches through the centuries, close on the heels of those first farms. And like those farms, today’s country stores are both celebrated by their community and challenged to find a viable business model to carry them into the future.
Vermont’s early outposts of farmers and foresters first bartered with traders for goods they couldn’t make at home, then later purchased goods from itinerant sellers traveling up from commercial centers to the south. These outposts eventually grew large enough to become true villages with enough consumer demand to warrant their own country store with fresh fruit, silk, linens, molasses, sewing kits, shoes, salt, medicine, and nearly anything a customer could desire. As Dennis Bathory-Kitsz writes in his History and Guide to Country Stores of Vermont, “…where there were roads, there came stores. Farmers, stores. Railroads, stores. Tourists, stores.”
That history is still felt today. “Country stores are a critical element of Vermont’s social fabric,” says Charlie Wilson, who runs the Taftsville Country Store. And just as each of Vermont’s towns has developed a unique personality, there is a high level of individualism in each of the estimated 100 country stores in Vermont.
Bathory-Kitsz, who is executive director of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, jokes that “We could have been the Vermont Alliance of Independent County, Village, General, and Corner Stores and Markets and Longstanding Cooperatives and Very Small Groceries with Historic Character and Diverse Goods.” He says that in order for a store to be part of the Alliance, which currently has 42 members, it “has to have been part of its community and really show itself to be part of the diverse tradition of meeting its customers’ needs very personally.”
Wilson is carrying on such a legacy in Taftsville, one that stretches back to 1840, when the Taft family first built the store. It has been a general store ever since, except for a brief stint as an antiques shop in the late 1920s. But tradition isn’t measured only in the age of a building or a business; stores today link back to their heritage by providing some of the same services to their community that they did generations ago.
One of the most important services provided by a country storekeeper, ever since the first store opened, has been an ability to know the local customers and to respond to their needs. This ability to match the quirks of a particular place and customer base sets country stores apart from national competitors. As Bruce MacMillan of the Cambridge Village Market explains, “We’re in a small community…this is the only store I own and we’re able to cater to our customers’ needs.” For MacMillan that catering means an emphasis on an affordable full line of groceries. In other stores it means providing an outlet for neighbors with eggs, jams, syrup, and other home goods to sell. In some places it’s a particular specialization, like the wine cellar in Taftsville.
Yet a community’s needs aren’t always for the products on the shelves.
“We’re both the commercial center and a large part of the social center for our community, along with the Community Club and Music School” says Janet MacLeod of the Adamant Co-op, the state’s oldest food cooperative. That social role is played out in Friday night summer cookouts, arts workshops in the winter, and the annual Black Fly Festival—complete with a theme song, parade, and black fly-inspired pie contest.
Wilson points out that even in the age of the Internet, the informal social networks supported by stores whenever customers pass through serve as important information systems. He’s often the first to receive a call when anyone has a question or wants to get an announcement out to the rest of the town.
Of course, while some things remain the same in village centers, most things change. Community stores have encountered challenges as they attempt to thrive in modern times. Village residents no longer have to travel days by horse or foot to reach a larger town shopping center—it’s only a car drive away. In fact, many people commute to these larger towns for work and can do their shopping at the end of the work day. Stores also face limits of scale when ordering from distributors who are used to much larger volume purchases, and some delivery truck drivers are not able to justify a special trip to reach an out-of-the-way village center. Retail regulations are certainly more limiting than two hundred years ago. Plus, the sheer number of shopping options has exploded—from convenience stores to superstores to shopping malls to online catalogues.
Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, is one of a growing number of Vermonters who believe that the trends pointing away from country stores are a bad direction for the rural towns and villages that rely on these stores not only as the mainstays of a commercial district (sometimes the entire commercial district) but also as a “third place” away from home and work where community members can gather.
Bruhn says that communities can help country stores turn the services that many take for granted—from organizing the search for a lost dog to serving as unofficial welcome centers —into viable business models that can compete with chain stores. The Preservation Trust works with stores around the state to tighten business plans and to develop different community investment models that help keep the business alive through transition times.
Putney residents recently made this type of community-driven commitment to their general store. After 200 years in downtown Putney, the store was largely destroyed by fire on May 3, 2008. Insurance would have helped the store rebuild —but not in the spirit of the original structure or, necessarily, with the same business options. So the Putney Historical Society worked with Bruhn and others to take ownership of the structure themselves. Once the Historical Society purchased the building, they could leverage grants available to nonprofits to preserve both the building’s character and purpose as a store.
“Putney’s never not had this store,” says Lyssa Papazian, who is spearheading the Historical Society project. “We don’t plan to micromanage the business, but we do want to prevent the property from being overburdened with debt and to keep it perpetually affordable as a general store…it’s a cornerstone of our downtown.”
The store won’t be exactly the same. The retail space will most likely be pared back to one floor and the well-loved (if antiquated) video collection won’t return, but the store will continue to meet a range of community needs. It never stopped meeting one need, though. The Viagra Club of local retirees who gathered at the coffee station each Friday morning continued their confab even after the fire, with lawn chairs and a vigil where the coffee would have been.
Wilson observes that “when a store closes it takes some of the soul out of a community.” But the reverse can also be true. The soul of a community can inspire its citizens to be sure that their store never goes away.
If you want to visit some of Vermont’s country stores, check out the tour routes at www.vaics.org. You can also find ordering information for the book History and Guide to Country Stores of Vermont at this site.
Photo by Barbi Schreiber