General stores and their towns still have a heartbeat

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General stores and their towns still have a heartbeat

Sun, 05/02/2021 - 1:38pm -- tim

In Shrewsbury, Pierce's Store, reopened as a cooperative in 2009, is thriving. Manager Elana Levin was too busy for an interview. Photos by C.B. Hall

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine "If you don't have a store, you can't really have a town," Ripton resident and prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in a New York Times op-ed three years ago.

It's a thought that haunts many Vermont towns, as general stores, long a sine qua non of village economies – and the Vermont brand – contend with today's economic forces. From Albany in the state's northeast to West Rupert in the southwest, dozens of communities have confronted what it means to see their local stores endangered, or closed.

As of this writing, however, the state's general stores – a/k/a village stores, a/k/a country stores – appear to be holding their own against the onslaught of online shopping, pandemic restrictions, and other factors.

Those stores include Ripton's; in fact, McKibben's piece amounted to an advertisement of sorts that sought interest in purchasing the Addison County town's store, whose owners, Dick and Sue Collitt, were retiring.

For Ripton, population 569, the result of McKibben's 2018 appeal can be summarized as so-far-so-good.

A Virginia couple, Eva Hoffman and Gary Wisell, got wind of the Times piece through a friend, and that fall found them the new owners of a prototypical Vermont general store: wood heat, ancient cash register, aging advertisements tacked to the front of the building, and a residence in the 1880 structure's upstairs.

Sherman's General Store, West Rupert. The gas pumps at Sherman's Store, out of order for now, boast antique globes advertising Beeline Gas.

Changing hands that November 5, the establishment never closed – or, as Hoffman put it in a recent interview, "There wasn't any down time. The previous owner spent some time with us, to kind of help us make that transition, after the purchase."

The couple soon found out what sets Vermont rural stores apart from supermarkets. Much like a rural town's school, its store is a focus of small-town life. Ripton's commercial heart kept beating, thanks to the couple's efforts and the town's residents.

And certainly the craft beer craze – all country stores should have a good selection of beer.

Wisell and Hoffman have no employees, but, "There isn't anything somebody wouldn't do for us," Hoffman told VBM. "It's a very special community."

Asked about the store's business model, she said, "One of the things that was important was to maintain the integrity of the store itself, but to put our own spin on it – but not so much that people would be upset with us. The flavor of the store is very similar to what it was before."

They sell the gas, groceries, beer and wine that had long been part of the offerings, but like many of today's general-store owners, added some local stuff that patrons weren't going to find in a supermarket. "We try to support all the local artists and artisans. We have pottery and cards and books. We have authors here in the area, whose books we have on display." The edifice also continues to house the Ripton post office, under a lease with the new proprietors.

In Albany, A Community Enterprise

While the Times played a unique role in it, the story of the Ripton store is otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. Residents of numerous Vermont towns have in recent years put plenty of sweat equity and money into sustaining or reopening village stores tottering under the gales from Amazon, Walmart, and Dollar General.

That's what has been happening, if slowly, in Albany, where a fire destroyed the local store in 2013. In early 2018 the Orleans County town's residents formed a nonprofit, the Albany Community Trust, whose purposes included filling the void that the blaze had left in the community's life.

In an interview with VBM, ACT president Hannah Pearce said she expected the new Albany General Store to open June 1.

She cautioned, however, that "after three years of delays and everything, it's a risky thing to give any solid date."

The opening will bring to fruition $800,000 worth of planning, architectural work, septic work, cleaning the gas tanks, landscaping, construction, and installing interior fixtures. Part of the funding has come via tax credits and federal, state, and private foundation grants, but locals have dug into their pockets for half the sum, she said.

ACT will not be running the store: Under a five-year lease signed in March, the three partners who own and run the general store in Craftsbury, the town next door, will own and operate the business.

"They presented a good business plan, and obviously they're experienced general-store operators," Pearce said.

The Craftsbury store's owners – Emily MacLure, Kit Basom and Jana Smart – have formed a new LLC, The Three Ladies, as the Albany venture's operator.

There is a kind of weird juxtaposition of a lot of stores closing and a tremendous interest in Vermont that really hasn't played out yet.

"We're hoping that we can really hit the ground running on the basis of nine years of learning here," Basom told VBM, referring to the trio's tenure at the Craftsbury General Store – which has been "doing well," in her words.

"The rental income we receive from [The Three Ladies] can be rolled into our next project," Pearce said, "because the function of the trust is to revitalize the entire Albany community."

The solidarity among the town's 914 residents, demonstrated when ACT stepped in to coordinate meal programs after the pandemic hit, has made her "really hopeful for what Albany hopes to do" in the future.

By catering to people who wanted to stock up or were seeking specific things they had been getting at supermarkets, she noted, Vermont's small stores "really saw an increase in patronage during COVID because people really wanted to stay in their community... The flexibility of small stores and their commitment to really serving their patrons and communities really showed during the pandemic."

The Ripton Country Store sits along Route 125, the mountain town's main thoroughfare. In the winter, the wood stove provides all the Ripton Country Store's heat.

The Statewide Perspective

ACT's benefactors have included the Preservation Trust of Vermont, whose president, Ben Doyle, expanded on some of Pearce's points. "There are lots of general stores that are being revitalized," he said, but he expressed uncertainty as to whether that trend could overcome the "very challenging" economic realities they face.

Those challenges continue to come from dollar stores and big box markets, for example, in addition to online shopping.

"We've been really investing, with general stores, in what we call the community-supported enterprise model," he said. He ticked off communities where that concept has been applied: Elmore, Shrewsbury, Guilford, East Calais, Putney and Barnard, as well as Albany.

Vermont Retail and Grocers Association president Erin Sigrist said her organization was likewise "seeing a lot of communities banding together" to save their stores.

"The communities are the experts in what they need," she told VBM, although VRGA does stand ready to connect them with other communities who have preserved or are trying to preserve their stores.

Doyle's organization has likewise lent a hand, for example by providing what he termed "modest" funding to help assess a threatened building's condition.

The Preservation Trust has also facilitated the receipt of larger federal grants from the National Park Service. In 2020 that meant a $100,000 award to the Elmore Store – in continuous operation since the early 1800s – and a grant in the same amount to the East Calais Community Trust, which is working to reopen the shuttered general store there.

The communities are the experts in what they need.

"When the old owner retires and there's no transition plan in place, or there's deferred maintenance that makes it challenging for the business moving forward, that's a problem. The community-supported enterprise model provides an opportunity for a more sustainable transition."

Subsequently, he said, "Even if the operator were to go out of business, the non-profit owner ... still exists and can potentially find a new operator."

The pandemic has revealed two things, he said – "the fragility of our retail environment," as demonstrated by online purchasing, and "how important 'local' is."

"People have recognized how important it is to have that local store to get those critical supplies."

He also discerned "this incredible connection between the preservation of the stores and the recreation economy. Bicyclists want to have an experience of what the community provides. General stores, which are often located in historic buildings, are not artifacts of a time gone by."

Don't Forget The Beer

According to Jack Garvin, former chairman of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores and former manager of Warren's store, the Green Mountain State currently boasts between 70 and 75 country stores, the term he prefers to general stores.

Asked to define a country store, he said, "It's a place that has to have some history. A building that has some age."

After retiring last summer, he took a recreational tour of the state and found that village stores are ''kind of an endangered species." But that doesn't spell doom for them.

Mach's Market sits in the heart of Pawlet village. Mach's Market retains much of the establishment's antique furnishings. Mach's Market co-owner Gib Mach.

The number of general stores has certainly declined in recent decades, but neither he nor Vermont Retail and Grocers Association president Sigrist discerned a clear trend one way or the other right now. The state has maintained "right around the same" number of general stores over the last couple of years, in Sigrist's words.

"There is a kind of weird juxtaposition of a lot of stores closing and a tremendous interest in Vermont that really hasn't played out yet. I think that a lot of people might have not been able to carry on, but there's a lot of people from out of state that don't want to live in such high-density places and have the money to buy businesses," Garvin said, alluding to the real-estate boom that some have attributed to flight from pandemic hot spots.

"I think we're all sort of in the process of seeing how this all shakes out. Maybe we'll know in a year or two."

"Grab-and-go has helped during the pandemic. That success will carry over ... as we work our way out of this."

Village stores also get a boost by offering prepared meals and "an element of surprise" at products not available in supermarkets. "And certainly the craft beer craze – all country stores should have a good selection of beer."

Not part of the model: the hardware, farm feeds, and clothing that once were mainstays of country stores, but now, he said, are only found in "a few" of them.

The Incremental Model

In West Rupert, the recently reopened Sherman's Store introduced itself to VBM with big, multi-paned windows, a profusion of corbels, and a steep slated roof interrupted by many dormers – all bespeaking the architecture of the Victorian era in which the structure was built. Big yellow globes reading "Beeline Gas" adorned the gas pumps, which wore Out of Order notices.

Co-owner Carol Connors explained that the globes were antiques that the prior owner had found somewhere and installed good-humorlessly. As for the pumps themselves, she said, "I need the tanks tested, and the pumps tested. I haven't had time to do that. Now that it's spring I'll be looking into it."

She and partner Pat Garrison acquired the property after a lengthy effort. It came up for tax sale in 2017, and they put in the winning bid of $17,000, but they launched the business only three-and-a-half years later, after legal complexities that included the prior owner's bankruptcy filings had run their course.

By the time they opened the doors on October 24, 2020, the establishment had been closed for two years. They retained the store's historic name, there being no reason to change it.

At the time of BM's visit in April, the inside of the store had a lot of empty space – testifying to the owners' incremental approach to building their business.

"As business calls for and people request things, we'll be expanding," Connors said, mentioning for instance that more coolers would be joining those already on hand. "Our strategy is just to supply the people what they need. I'm kinda here for them."

We've been really investing, with general stores, in what we call the community-supported enterprise model.

Garrison, she said, continues to hold down a 40-hour-a-week job managing a box store in the Saratoga area. Like Ripton's storekeepers, they have no employees, but her daughter comes in from time to time to work pro bono.

"Now that spring's coming, there's good weather, and there's a lot of people coming through." Corroborating Doyle's finding, she said that bicyclists and hikers have been coming in from the D&H Rail Trail, a quarter-mile away, for munchies.

"It's all kind of coming together... We just opened slow, and it's been growing ever since."

The interview took multiple breaks for interruptions along the line of "Thank you, Eli" or "I gotta go slice some cold cuts" as she bustled behind the counter.

"We're doing OK," she said.

"We're All Like Family"

The incremental approach ls hardly universal. Just north of West Rupert, in Pawlet – a village that local artisan Judy Lake described as "quaint and slightly scruffy" – Mach's Market recently reopened with something closer to a turnkey approach.

Smack in the middle of the scruff and quaintness, the market's doors open onto a gleaming, spacious interior, the product of five years spent renovating the 1804 building.

Gib Mach, co-owner along with his wife, Doreen, described the business model as pursuing the greatest diversity possible within the realm of food. The retail area features everything from candy and health care goods, in vintage wood-and-glass display cases, to exotic coffees, pastries for grab-and-go patrons, and the inevitable beer cave.

The Machs employ 11 full-timers and four or five part-timers.

"We do a takeout thing. We do pizza. I have a smoker and we do barbecue," Gib Mach told VBM. "We do as much organic and locally grown as possible. And we've got some organic farmers who've got greenhouses, and we buy year-round from them."

The market's website lists 10 Vermont farms as sources – all within 35 miles. Catering is part of the mix, too. Meats are cut in-house. During the pandemic Mach's has also participated in the state-run Everybody Eats program, which has served the twin purposes of keeping the food-service sector going and filling the bellies of people whose lives the crisis has turned upside down.

"We've sent out 200 or 250 meals on certain days," Mach said.

And there's more on the horizon. At the back of the huge building, a large room already looks like a restaurant, with tables and chairs set elegantly across the floor, but it's not open – yet.

"When I get to it," he explained. "No banks are lending for restaurants these days."

But, while plans for the restaurant were on hold, he continued, "I needed to get the doors open." Which is what he and his wife did on May 22, 2020.

Asked if the enterprise was turning a profit, he said, "Oh yeah, most certainly."

"We're all like family. That's really what makes it work. We treat everyone like family."

He was referring to his employees – but perhaps he could have been looking out to his community as well.

Shrewsbury, Pierce's Store

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.