Behind the old-time veneer, see an essential country store
To visitors to the Green Mountain State, country stores might seem to have sprouted from the soil like sugar maples.
Merchants invariably know where to set up shop: across from a covered bridge, against a rolling hillside, or tucked into the center of a tiny hamlet. More than 100 country and general stores adorn pastoral landscapes from the Massachusetts border to the Northeast Kingdom. While that number may seem robust, there were as many as 600 doing business early in the last century. Every town had at least one, and each was a little different from the rest.
As a child, I gravitated toward their old-fashioned charms. There was something I couldn’t resist about buying whole pickles from a barrel. But most country stores offer much more than snacks to tourists. They’re sustaining elements of village culture.
One of the most rustic, and successful, is H.N. Williams Store in Dorset, a mere five miles north of the designer outlets in bustling Manchester Center.
The store has been in the same family for six generations and in its barn-like facade are features of the harness shop that was there in the 1840s. These primitive elements are found inside as well. Broad wooden floorboards and exposed beams are the rule. The flaking green wallpaper in one room looks as if it predates the presidency of Vermonter Chester A. Arthur (1881-85). Some of the family photos on the wall certainly do.
But not everything is old. Owner Billy Brownlee, a 30-something University of Vermont graduate who grew up across from his family’s store, renovated and expanded the place in 2007. The cellar now houses an extensive selection of Carhartt apparel, which Brownlee says is one of his largest draws.
Another attraction is the farmers’ market he holds in the field next to the store every Sunday in warmer months. More than 40 vendors sell here, and not just the standard fruits and vegetables, but cheese, honey, meat, and local crafts.
“It’s a way to support local families and their products,’’ says Brownlee. “You know where the food is coming from, and it keeps money in the area economy.’’
In many ways, country stores have been the greatest proponents and beneficiaries of the “Made in Vermont’’ label.
Take F.H. Gillingham & Sons in the historic village of Woodstock. Its shelves are lined with specialty items that tempt both natives who want to eat local goods and visitors who want a taste of Vermont. Wandering down the store’s creaky wooden aisles revealed the ubiquitous Vermont Common Crackers and jugs of maple syrup from regional farms, but also locally made chèvre, pasta sauce, salad dressing, smoked bacon, and pancake mix.
Yet it’s the sheer breadth of nongrocery items - and the absurd juxtaposition of it all - that has always lured me into these emporiums. I love the fact that I can buy a container of night crawlers at the same place that sells fine china and order up gazpacho while trying on a pair of hiking boots.
These unlikely combinations result from the days before national superstores ventured into rural areas, when local establishments had to be true general stores.
Gillingham’s has been run by the same family since it opened in 1886 and has remained responsive to its customers’ needs. The paint and hardware sections, while still around, have been greatly reduced in size. “Our customers started buying from chain stores beginning in the 1980s and we just couldn’t compete,’’ says co-owner Frank Billings. In their place, Gillingham’s expanded its fly-fishing section and its selection of fine wines and children’s toys.
Many stores, including Gillingham’s, have banded together under the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores. While any type of collaboration might seem anathema to self-reliant Vermonters, the organization has grown steadily since it was established in 2000, with 45 stores currently participating. Annual meetings are held to discuss the latest trends and best practices in the face of big-box incursions, and store owners have benefited from increased visibility.
Alliance members are committed to preserving a way of life. At the 169-year-old Taftsville Country Store locals can buy a gallon of milk and then grab their mail from the store’s full-service Post Office.
Sure, the Taftsville store might also sell Montecristo cigars from its two humidors and decorate the front room with antiques to entice tourists, but it’s just good business to stock something for everyone.
In northern Vermont, however, country stores feel more utilitarian. Tourists don’t travel within shouting distance of the Quebec border with the same regularity, and places like Currier’s Quality Market in Glover (population 900) belong to the townsfolk for much of the year.
On the rainy morning I visited the market, it looked like a good number of them had beaten me there. As if on cue, “Born Country’’ by Alabama began playing on the radio when I walked in. But almost immediately my attention was diverted by a museum’s worth of taxidermy - bear, moose, wolves, deer, fish, pheasants, you name it. The stuffed animals occupied any space that wasn’t already filled by the goods that inched toward the rafters. Like in most country stores, room spilled into room, the result of decades of piecemeal expansion.
The store held treasures for anyone who appreciates old-fashioned quality. I found snowshoes, woolen pants, fishing gear, self-serve candy, drugstore remedies, fresh produce, antique coins, chimney supplies, and hardware.
Owner Jim Currier, 69, who still arrives at 3:30 a.m. every day, proudly admits he’ll probably die on the job.
“How else can I explain it?’’ he says. “I enjoy work and I like people.’’
And it’s clear that Glover residents more than like his store. Currier’s is a meeting place that ties the community together. I overheard moms discussing the start of the school year, neighbors catching up at the deli counter, and friends chatting about weekend plans.
When I closed my eyes and listened, it could have been 1909 instead of 2009. But it was definitely Vermont.
Matthew Bellico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.