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Everything's in store

Vermonters are still working hard to stock and diversify the stores that have long been features of village life

Email|Print| Text size + By Christina Tree
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2004

Vermont country stores are a distinct species, one that is both endangered and still evolving, adjusting to the changing needs of the hundreds of villages for which they have long served as hubs.

Old-fashioned general stores exist in other states, but nowhere are they as numerous and beloved as here. The country store, which in Vermont is defined to include both the general store and its smaller country cousin, has become a local icon, right up there with fall foliage and farms.

Most country stores now offer hot food and a good deli. Some invite customers to linger at tables, or on couches. Before you leave home, you can even find stores along your route at www.vaics.org, the website for the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores. That last convenience can seem worrisome at first. Are these bastions of old Vermont character turning slick?

Al Floyd of Floyd's General Store in Randolph Center seemed puzzled by my suspicions. His store's elaborate website, Floyd told me, "didn't cost a thing." His wife, Jan, took the pictures and built the site herself, and alliance dues are just $50 a year. The store's vintage 1912 cash register is there, Floyd assured me, not for tourists but because it works. True, the vintage Sylvan Acorn potbelly stove is no longer hooked up, but locals as well as visitors like to sit around it anyway. And the store, which still carries veterinarian supplies and a full line of groceries as well as penny candy for a penny, remains essentially the same village center that Floyd inherited from his father.

The Vermont Alliance website, while good, depends on members for input, and doesn't do justice to some of the stores. The page for Currier's Quality Market in Glover, for instance, doesn't mention the wildlife lurking in the aisles.

According to his daughter Julie, James Currier loves collecting stuffed trophies and his customers know it. The store is a game reporting station, where hunters weigh animals bagged in hunting season; some hunters keep just the meat and give Currier the carcass. That's how the 948-pound moose came to stand in front of the post office boxes, not far from the mountain lion.

Directions to specific items in Currier's usually involve animals: the diapers are "behind the bear"; to find paint, "turn right at the moose"; the restroom is "straight, past the timber wolf."

Currier's is a full-service, old-style general store. It boasts the "best beef around," stocks a full line of hardware and an outstanding selection of fishing and hunting supplies, plus clothing, toys, and groceries. It is still one of those legendary post offices with a gas pump, but now also offers an ATM, photo processing, and most recently, a full deli with freshly made soups and other hot specials. The chili is excellent.

Minutes south of Interstate 91 and just a minute more from a supermarket in Barton, Currier's Market is also handy to customers scattered along farm roads. Perhaps that's why this particular corner of the Northeast Kingdom is also home to two more classic general stores: Willy's in Greensboro and Hastings in West Danville. Willy's is a big grocery store downstairs, with boots, yard cloth, buttons, and more upstairs. Hastings I will always remember for the day the grandmotherly woman behind the counter refused to sell me salve for a son's burn. Instead, she proffered her own can of Bag Balm and a bandage.

"That would have been Mabel Hastings, my wife Jane's grandmother," storekeeper Garey Larrabee recently told me. Still a post office, the store is known locally for Garey's homemade sausage ("from an old family recipe") and his doughnuts and blueberry cake. Built in the 19th century as a stagecoach stop, it is red, rambling, double-porched, and positioned picturesquely across Route 2 from Joe's Pond. It happens that Jane Larrabee is a justice of the peace and frequently performs weddings by the pond; some couples like being married right in the store.

"Nine months after the last couple were married at the counter here," Garey Larrabee recalled, "they had a set of twins."

Less folksy and remote, but perhaps even more remarkable because it is holding its own, is Dan & Whit's in Norwich, just up the Connecticut River from the Upper Valley's busy shopping strip (complete with Wal-Mart) in West Lebanon, N.H.

"If we don't have it, you don't need it," remains the credo at Dan & Whit's, a barnlike landmark set back behind its gas pumps beside the Norwich Inn. In reality, however, it seems that whatever customers need, they get, whether it's plastic tubing or a new evaporator pan for sugaring, grain for horses and chickens, snowshoes, a woodstove, or birdseed. George and Jack Fraser have been keeping store ever since they came home from Vietnam. Their father, Dan, and his partner, Whit, had worked here 25 years before buying it from their boss.

Longtime family ownership does, in fact, seem to be the secret of Vermont's surviving general stores as much as it is of its farms. Smaller country stores can, however, change hands frequently, pressured more by competition from chain convenience stores than by what Jay Hathaway calls "big box stores."

Hathaway had owned Peltier's Market in Dorset for almost 25 years when he came up with the idea of "getting big to stay small." With the help of a grant or two, several nonprofit groups, and the involvement of other similar-minded storeowners, the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores was formed in 2000 as a subgroup of the Vermont Grocers Association. The aim was mutual support and promotion. The first meeting was in May 2001; membership now hovers around 60.

According to alliance director Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, more than 244 small, independently owned country stores survive in Vermont, but just 110 of these qualify for alliance membership. Requirements are few but firm: A store has to be independently owned and either a historic structure or on the site of a longtime store that it has replaced. Most important: It should still function at the center of its community, selling groceries, not just specialty items and gifts.

"Of course, 20 years ago, we sold a lot more groceries," said Jayne Nold-Laurendeau, chairwoman of the alliance. "Today, however, every store is different because the needs in every village are different."

Gradually, in the course of a couple of months spent prowling the Green Mountain State, it dawned on me that many stores weren't what they used to be and that many more are now worth a stop, especially if one is hungry. The South Woodstock Country Store, for example, now has a full-time chef.

"We wanted to take the food to a new level," said co-owner Helen O'Brien, "and one of our customers was a chef in need of work." Though it's not obvious from the gas pumps out front, the store's back room has been expanded and fitted with a counter and tables. Now, there's a full breakfast menu, and lunch could be Cajun grilled chicken or eggplant parmigiana. Until they run out, daily specials also serve as take-out dinners.

Still, for some stores, cooking food makes no sense. Positioned at the commercial core of the famously beautiful and sophisticated town of Woodstock, F.H. Gillingham & Co., for instance, is steps from restaurants and a full-service deli. Operated by the same family since 1886, Gillingham's now specializes in gourmet items, fine wines, and decorative hardware, and has a mail-order catalog.

Three miles east of Woodstock, Charlie Wilson tried a deli in his Taftsville Country Store, but it wasn't really his thing. Luckily, the vintage 1840 brick store is picturesque enough to snag passing tourists who may notice his wide selection of Vermont cheeses, a phenomenon well known to Taftsville's 100 residents, most of whom stop by regularly to pick up their mail. Still, Wilson also counts on catalog sales for survival.

The mother of all Vermont catalogs, however, belongs to The Vermont Country Store. Established in Weston in 1946 by Vrest Orton, himself descended from a long line of rural Vermont storekeepers, The Vermont Country Store (Orton trademarked the name) was a nostalgia venture from the start. The specialty of both the Weston store and its offshoot Rockingham store, and of the catalog, is functional items, especially those that are difficult to find nowadays. Think jumbo metal hairpins, hardwood coat hangers, and slippery-elm throat lozenges. Now managed by Orton's three grandsons, the stores are tourist destinations, and have a mailing list of 50 million households.

Of course, most Vermont country stores still survive on the strength of what they sell to locals, not tourists, and most seem totally ordinary at first. Usually, it takes some poking around to discover what's special.

In Brownsville, it's chicken and biscuits, fresh from the Aga stove.

In Marshfield, it's history and helpfulness.

In Warren, it's the fresh croissants and standout deli downstairs and the unexpected treasures upstairs.

In Bradford's Bliss Village Store, it's the quality of Diane Harrington's deli salads and the spectacular view from the back-of-the store tables, off across the Connecticut River to Mount Moosilauke.

Throughout Vermont, it's the conversations you have in line as well as at the counter. Even if you rush in, you tend not to rush out. Therein lies the difference between a country and convenience store.

Admittedly, this species is morphing as new owners like Gary Hatch take on old buildings and seek to make a business. Last fall, when I stepped into Hatch's Newbury Village Store upriver from Bradford, I did a double take. Right there, just inside the entrance, was a big green sofa and a neighborly easy chair. I figured the new owners for out-of-staters.

Technically, I was right: It turns out Hatch grew up just across the river and had worked in the nearby Woodsville, N.H., general store in high school.

"I never thought I'd be doing this for a living," Hatch said. Instead he eventually found himself traveling the country.

"Every interstate exit looked the same," he recalled. "That same lineup of convenience stores, chain motels, and restaurants. Here, at least we are a real store, serving real people, in a real community."

Make that two communities. Gary and Maggie Hatch live across the bridge in Haverhill, N.H., an exquisite village, but one without a center because its store closed long ago. They didn't want that to happen to Newbury.

Christina Tree is a freelance writer in Cambridge. She is the co-author with Sally West Johnson of "Vermont: An Explorer's Guide" (Countryman Press, 2004).

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