If you go way back to the foggy beginnings of an average Vermont town, the building blocks of the community stack up something like this: First came the church, and then the town hall, the one-room schoolhouse, the tavern, the harness shop, the blacksmith, the itinerant traders and, last but not least, the general store.
The presence of a store in those days meant that the townspeople were doing something right. Either they were shearing enough wool to sell to the big cities, or they were cutting enough wood to employ hundreds of loggers, or farming enough land to feed a burgeoning population. It meant that the town was important enough to be connected to a decent road, which acted as the vital supply link between wholesalers and retailers.
Two hundred or more years later, the existence of a country store suggests a different story - one of survival amid such commercial competitors as supermarkets, convenience stores, big-box stores and the Internet. The country store offers a tale of retail alchemy, in which the proprietor concocts the right mixture of household staples, hardware, artisanal cheeses, gifts and groceries to serve diverse and idiosyncratic customers. It is a feel-good story about local residents banding together to maintain the vibrancy of their village centers.
Until very recently, nobody had taken the time to explain how Vermont country stores got from there to here. But in his new book, Country Stores of Vermont: A History and Guide, author Dennis Báthory-Kitsz does just that. His sturdy, pocket-sized volume deduces the origins of the Vermont village mercantile through a spirited recounting of the commercial development and growth of the state, since he found very little direct history of the establishments themselves. The book also contains 60 historic and contemporary photographs showing such things as men lowering barrels of molasses into a store basement; then-and-now comparisons of Vermont streetscapes; the 22-inch wide, first-growth pine boards still sheathing the H.N. Williams store in Dorset; and a regiment of old-timers harvesting ice blocks from Joe's Pond in West Danville. It's rounded out with a present-day assessment of the business model, and 10 tours that allow a sampling of Vermont's 300-odd country stores.
Báthory-Kitsz concludes that Vermont's country stores are struggling and prospering at the same time. Intentionally or otherwise, the book is timely because it is an exposition on village culture in an age when energy costs are making suburban sprawl look foolish and shortsighted. And if you do Vermont's demographic math - about 625,000 people divided among 251 towns - you find the state is a veritable Petri dish of robust village culture, possibly the nation's best example of sustainable, small-radius living. That most country stores are getting by in this harsh economic climate bodes well for the continuance of the Vermont way of life.
But, as Báthory-Kitsz shows, the success of a country store depends more on the inventiveness, opportunism and hard work of its owners than on any favorable conditions inherent in quaint Vermont villages. "One cannot be too sentimental about Vermont and its country stores," he writes. "Vermont is not a Norman Rockwell place - that illusion was never reality. It is a poor, secular culture with scenery and church steeples."
Báthory-Kitsz, 59, lives in what he calls Gouldsville, which is the former name of Northfield Falls. He's a high-energy character who doesn't hide his passion for the topic of his new publication. To get to his place from Route 12 you have to cross not one but two covered bridges within about a tenth of a mile. It feels like a good spot for a history buff. More than that, though, Báthory-Kitsz is a student of Vermont culture - it still enthralls him 30 years after moving here from New Jersey.
"The idea of a village culture is astounding," he declares, sitting at a picnic table on the edge of his overgrown gardens, while the rain-filled Cox Brook spills loudly behind him. What's the big deal? For one thing, he offers, village culture is civil and neighborly; even your worst enemy would help you change a tire. For another, it has encouraged him to pile up a list of avocations worthy of a modern Benjamin Franklin. Aside from being an author, he's also an editor, composer, photographer, technologist, music engraver and amateur carpenter. "In order to survive in Vermont," Báthory-Kitsz explains, "you have to do a lot of things."
In 2001, one of those things turned out to be country stores. Just down the road from his house, the owners of the Falls General Store were involved in launching the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores (VAICS), and they needed someone to work on publicity. Báthory-Kitsz whipped up a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of old stores and a seven-minute narrative. The dozen or so founding members of the fledgling organization were so impressed that they asked him to be its director.
Shortly thereafter, Báthory-Kitsz created a website and a newsletter and did a media blitz. The New York Times and Boston Globe both ran stories on the Alliance, and the NBC Nightly News did a segment in 2004, asking whether the "corner store can hang on in the face of corporate convenience."
VAICS' 55 members certainly hope so. The group's mission is to "promote and enhance country stores, while preserving their unique heritage and contributions to their communities." Members pay annual dues of $50, and also have to join the umbrella organization, the Vermont Grocers' Association, for an annual fee of $100. In order to qualify as a member, a store has to date to 1927, or at least have been around long enough to be considered a landmark in town. In addition, the store must be open year-round, independently owned and not part of a chain, and located in a rural area or village.
An informal criterion, Báthory-Kitsz says, is that the store must have enough basic necessities to sustain its customers in the event of a natural disaster or weather catastrophe. "So they can't just be a gift shop," he says. Those criteria leave about 100 eligible stores in Vermont, and the membership numbers tend to rise and fall with the stores' profits.
What VAICS members get for their money, along with the visibility from the website and a cheery, wholesome logo, is a sort of collective wisdom. At their quarterly meetings, members can share observations of consumer trends and trade tips on store management. Those new to the business have an instant support network: more experienced store owners who show the rookies how to comply with state tax laws, operate the lottery machine, or even toss the pizza dough.
Another benefit, says Maggie Hatch, 46, who owns the Newbury Village Store with her husband Gary, 55, is like-minded camaraderie: "It's nice to commune with other people who do what you do," she offers. The couple's store, which faces the Newbury green and Route 5, has been open since 1840 and has clean, white, vernacular architecture with tasteful maroon trim. Inside, the place looks like a contemporary convenience store. Except for the antique advertisements at the front, it has none of the trappings of many other old general stores - squeaky floorboards, a potbelly stove or rambling additions that seem to go on and on.
The Hatches purchased the store five years ago, after both of them left careers in software sales. At the core of their impromptu foray into small-business ownership was a desire to preserve the community ethic that they saw disappearing around the country. "We both came back [to New England] with kind of the same sense that we were disheartened everywhere we went," recalls Gary, a friendly and earnest New Hampshire native. "Every Interstate exit was like the last one; they all had their Hampton Inns and Cracker Barrel Restaurants and Wal-Marts."
In 2003, he and Maggie drove by the Newbury store and saw a "For Sale" sign in the window, like the kind someone would put on an old lawnmower. The place was run down, they remember, and the former owner was burned out after 20 years. The forlorn-looking building on the picturesque village green sparked the couple's nostalgia.
"When we saw this," says Maggie, a youthful and ebullient woman with brown hair, "we thought, 'This is dying in our country.' People don't know each other; they're all anonymous. And everywhere you go, the food is the same, because it comes from one great, big factory somewhere."
Not surprisingly, the Hatches feature homemade food prominently at their business. They also offer a long list of local food and crafts, including syrup, honey, corn, blueberries, eggs, vegetables, beef and soap. "Pretty much any local thing," says Maggie, "if someone comes in and says, 'Hey, you want to peddle this?' we're like, 'Yeah, sure, we'll buy 10 of them.'"
Gary says the town residents notice that the store supports the community, and so the community supports the store. This even though the Hatches' live three miles away, across the Connecticut River in Haverhill Corners, N.H. "We've adopted the town," Gary says warmly, "and they've adopted us."
That's the only way the store could survive, because competition is close and formidable, and Newbury is not a tourist destination. There's a Wal-Mart Supercenter eight miles away in Woodsville, N.H., and just over the state border, beer and cigarettes are substantially cheaper due to lower state sales taxes. "To compete with bigger stores," Maggie tells, "we have to watch every penny."
The Hatches also go out of their way to accommodate customers' requests (there's a request notebook by the front door), gladly ordering, say, a pilsner beer made in the Czech Republic, or ricotta cheese from a farm in Bennington. "We need them," Gary says of the local customers, "but in many ways, they need us. They need the store. If you take that away, I think a lot of people know they'll lose something precious."
Loyal patron Roger Chaffee agrees. He's been coming to the Newbury store for 40 years - since he was a little kid - and he's here almost every day to pick up the newspaper or a sandwich, or to see who he'll bump into. A local logger and cattle farmer, Chaffee says, "Without these stores, people would be in tough shape. It keeps the money in the area. There's a lot to these old stores, and you don't want to see them go out."
The Hatches want to stick around, too, but they acknowledge some challenges ahead. The major one: "We're a small store on the bottom side of the supply chain," says Gary. "Getting goods distributed to our store at a fair price is getting more difficult."
Every delivery to his store now comes with a $7 surcharge. At 12 deliveries per week, that adds up, and the Hatches haven't incorporated that cost into their prices. Furthermore, heating fuel this year may cost twice as much as it did last year, and minimum orders are increasing. For instance, International Baking purchased a slew of local bakeries last year and stopped delivering to the Newbury store, telling Gary he could still buy the bread at BJ's Wholesale Club, and East Coast membership warehouse. Hatch laughed at that suggestion, and found another supplier.
You might think that members of VAICS would attempt to corral buying power with their strength in numbers. But that's a lot harder than it sounds, says Charlie Wilson, 57, who owns the Taftsville Country Store and chairs the VAICS board. An articulate, spunky guy with sandy-colored hair, Wilson purchased the Taftsville store in 1991, after dropping out of an executive position at a department store in Los Angeles.
"The trouble is," he says, "we don't have buying power. What we have are about 50 stores that are all independently operated." So, Wilson explains, he can't approach Coca-Cola and say VAICS will buy a certain number of cases of soda and put them in an exact location, with a particular display, in each store. Every store is different, with unique needs and budgets, so it's impossible to unify for the purpose of purchasing inventory. The "independent" in VAICS is the key word, Wilson says, "but it's a drawback, too."
That puts pressure on each store to find its particular niche in the community it serves. Wilson's business comes about equally from local residents, tourists and mail order, and he needs all three to remain viable. He puts out a colorful catalogue every year featuring custom gift baskets full of maple syrup, Vermont smokehouse meats and specialty cheeses. Wine now comprises 15 percent of his business, a component Wilson grew from nothing. "That's something that's almost universal," he says of wine's recent popularity in country stores.
Indeed, Báthory-Kitsz found that vino is just one of the "imaginative solutions" country stores have implemented as demographics shift and tastes change. Other major ones are ATMs and pick-ups for FedEx and UPS.
Those amenities may seem like excuses to get people in the door, and they are, but they're also motivators for people to do business in the village center, and that's less about commerce and profit than it is about community building. In this regard, Wilson is somewhat of a legend, for his efforts to keep the Taftsville Post Office in the store, where it's been since at least the mid-1800s.
In the mid-1990s, the United States Postal Service was "upgrading" all of its small branch offices around the country, but instead of keeping them in downtowns, it began moving them into bigger spaces miles away, sometimes in strip malls. Along with the proliferation of suburban big-box stores, the loss of an essential service like the post office contributed to business districts drying up; people simply had fewer reasons to go there. Taftsville resident Nancy Nye, aware of Wilson's struggle with the USPS, wrote a letter to the editor at The New York Times, saying, "The Postal Service needs to reassess its strategy for growth."
The next day, a USPS representative showed up at Wilson's store and said they could work something out. Wilson spent $90,000 of his own money to design and build the new office in the back of his store, which is the only public building in this hamlet of Woodstock, with a population of about 150. The bright lights, Formica and linoleum of the post office contrast starkly with the brick and wood at the front of the building, but it brings people in every day, and the rental payments are a good buffer when business is slow. "I'd love to say I was responsible for it," Wilson says with a chuckle, "but I wasn't. It was a neighbor."
Not all tales about country stores end so happily. Just ask Steve Stallsmith, one of three owners of the Marshfield Village Store, which closed its doors in January. Stallsmith and his partners bought the store in 2004, all of them moving here from Michigan to chase the dream of a general store.
"We had hoped it would be a self-supporting venture," Stallsmith, 46, says during a recent phone call. "Not that we expected to get rich, but we expected it to cover our own expenses and maintain the store."
After a year and a half in business, those expectations weren't realized, and Stallsmith went back to the financial-services industry at National Life. A variety of factors contributed to the store's closure, he says. The most influential one is that Marshfield is a bedroom community for Barre and Montpelier, so many residents shop in those cities before coming home after work. The owners also had a lot of overhead - a sizeable mortgage to pay down every month and a team of employees. The previous owners, who were there for 28 years, did well, but it was a family operation and had no mortgage, so expenses were greatly reduced.
What did Stallsmith learn from the experience? That "you aren't going to get support or accommodations from the state or any local agencies," he asserts, and that he should have been better prepared to make the store a seamless part of his life, rather than just a business. "It becomes all-consuming when you live in a small town," he says. "You don't get away from it."
The store is now open on weekends to liquidate the inventory, and Stallsmith has the property listed for sale or lease. But he still hasn't given up completely. With Groton State Park close by, summer is the busiest season. "If I could figure out a way," he says, "I will reopen for the summers."
If Stallsmith can't make the Marshfield store work, chances are someone else will. That's the impression Báthory-Kitsz gained while combing history tomes - such as Abby Hemenway's 1400-page Vermont Gazetter - and scouring the state to research his book. Country stores, he found, belong to a resilient, determined species of the commerce kingdom. "These small stores have weathered wars, the bitter winter of 1816, the monetarist crisis of the late nineteenth century, the Great Depression," he says excitedly - not to mention fires, floods and a technological revolution.
To understand what makes the country store such a hearty breed, just show up at one when the wind, rain or snow has closed every other business in town. Last winter, for example, Báthory-Kitsz visited Bailey's & Burke in East Burke on the day the East Branch of the Passumpsic River exceeded its banks. The store was inundated with water and chunks of ice, but it was open. Local residents, after all, needed their morning coffee.
"The idea is that small entrepreneurs will always be there to fill a need," the author surmises. "That's why they won't die."