Preserving Vermont’s General Stores
Published: April 2009
By Adam Lehner
In Vermont, the Country Store Alliance is determined to preserve the old tradition of the general store—even if it means trafficking in a bit of kitsch and nostalgia.
There is a tiny country store in Adamant, Vermont, that is the very picture of rural perfection. Surrounded by placid ponds and burbling waterfalls, the bright yellow-and-white converted farmhouse welcomes customers with signs of its belonging to an earlier, simpler era. Inside, the scene is even quainter: a woodstove, an assortment of wines and motor oils, a bowl of individual shoelaces and sewing pins for sale. The store could be an advertisement for the homey goodness of Vermont.
Which, in a funny way, it is. As a member of the recently formed Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, the Adamant Co-op is now an Official Representative of the Vermont Way of Life, joining 54 other such enterprises to promote their own specialty foodstuffs, host cheese tastings, and encourage tours to stores throughout the state. Many proudly fly a flag (a stylized shop against a backdrop of mountains and a glowing sun), letting you know that—in the words of the organization’s Web site—"you’re in one of Vermont’s genuine independent country stores!"
As Jan Floyd, co-owner of Floyd’s Store, in Randolph Center, puts it: "It’s kind of a tourist thing: you’re both a country store and an information booth." Brandishing a homemade map featuring local attractions, she explains the new paradigm. "You can tell visitors where to go or not to go—you can say this person is happy to give you a tour of his farm, that person will chase you off with his shotgun. It gives them that grassroots feel, like they’ve gotten in touch with the real Vermont."
But is it the real Vermont if it’s promoting itself?Isn’t there something contradictory about the notion of a self-hyping Yankee?
The country store of yesteryear was an institution devised to provide one-stop shopping for people looking to pick up just about anything: incoming relatives, chunks of lard, scurrilous gossip, dried fruits, and odd-looking contraptions of all shapes and sizes. Farmers were particularly dependent on the country store because it extended credit, thus tiding them over between harvests. As the nexus of most commercial and many social endeavors, country stores embodied the very idea of the community enterprise.
But lately that model has been under threat from the creeping forces of anonymity and blandness, from big-box stores and commercial sprawl. It’s one thing if the person selling you diapers benignly recalls the days when you wore them, quite another if he’s staring at you with grim desperation as he grinds out the hours for a multinational. In the old-fashioned country store, town secrets were traded like so much grain. No more. Can a society that shops without talking really be considered a society at all?
This is the question posed by the country-store partisans of Vermont, a state whose inhabitants are ever suspicious of vulgar "improvements." Its legislators have banned billboards and restricted the construction of cell-phone towers as if they were expelling a dangerous virus from the body politic. Vermonters spent years opposing Wal-Mart’s attempts to build a store there, and when the company finally did, in 1993, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the entire state on its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. In 2004, when Wal-Mart proposed additional store openings, the Trust put Vermont back on the list—a highly unusual step.
"We wanted people to realize what this assault would do to such a small state," says Emily Wadhams, vice president for public policy at the National Trust. "In the Midwest and the South, communities often have thriving shopping centers outside of town and total disinvestment in their downtowns. We don’t want that to happen to Vermont."
And yet, Vermont cannot completely avoid the influence of the outside world. For country stores to flourish in the current environment, a certain low-key entrepreneurial zest—the marriage, perhaps, of P.T. Barnum and Eeyore—is often required. Jan Floyd is one of the savvier members of the alliance: she runs Floyd’s with her genial husband, Al, and has a showman’s eye for displaying the store’s Rockwellian exterior to persuasive advantage. She tells an amusing story about a photo shoot that involved her rounding up a child, a dog, and a bicycle for the perfect shot. During our conversation, she keeps reminding me that by talking we are squandering prime photo light.
Another Vermonter pumped up about the prospects of the Alliance is Ralph Swett: he wants the organization to promote bus tours to the stores. "I’d like to have 400 buses a year come by—I’ve put in new toilets." Swett’s shop is in Evansville, just a few miles south of the Canadian border, housed in a converted church pushed up against a more modern structure. Inside, one finds provisions, wine, guns, Red Sox sweatshirts, the latest copy of Teen Beat, and a room smelling so oppressively of scented candles it can be endured only for a few seconds. Another room is filled with Native American paraphernalia, including dream catchers. Swett, who has the face of a turtle and gray-and-white hair pulled back behind his ears, is the chief of the Clan of the Hawk in Northeastern Vermont, and he is preparing for a powwow planned for the following weekend.
Vermont stores "give a damn," he says. "They care, they extend credit. You think the Wal-Marts of this world do that?But the Vermont country stores that people dream of when they think of what a Vermont store looks like, those are the ones having a hard time surviving."
But what exactly does the phrase "Vermont country store" refer to?Just what is the idea that people dream of?The Alliance’s member shops differ dramatically, at least in appearance. The Warren Country Store, located in a lovely town made rich by ski money, exudes urbane country charm. Its wine collection is displayed with sophistication, and it sells boutique sodas out of an old-fashioned mirrored cooler. On the second floor, it offers the sort of large ethnic jewelry and dark-patterned clothing favored by Cambridge psychotherapists.
What does the Warren establishment have in common with, say, the bustling Currier’s Quality Market, in Glover, a town that is home to both the internationally acclaimed Bread and Puppet theater group and a sizable number of people who regard a trip to Burlington, 50 miles away, as a major undertaking?As much natural history museum as country store, Currier’s contains more than 100 stuffed animals—and not the kind normally given to children. The coolers here are topped by mounted beavers, owls, eagles, and fish. The potato-chip aisle has two full-size cavorting deer; hard by the soda-and-tampons section, a black wolf stands over the corpse of a big-antlered caribou. In front of the window of the post office, also located in the store, a moose stands guard.
A few days spent traveling around the state may well lead one to conclude that the essence of a real Vermont country store lies in its only faintly resembling other real Vermont country stores. If, from time to time, one can detect a little bit of tasteful yet unmistakable showmanship in their various self-presentations—if the ancient Coke signs outside are not merely there because the owners haven’t gotten around to replacing them, but because they are useful—it cannot be denied that these trappings of authenticity are actually...authentic.
Of course, there is the danger that this razzmatazz could harden, like candy or plastic. Or that it could succeed too well: some quintessential Vermont companies have become so big, they’ve left their country-store past behind. One part-owner of the Glover country store, Julie McKay, talks about watching the Cabot dairy truck drive by without making a stop. To most of the Northeast, the Cabot name is synonymous with Vermont "quality," but for precisely this reason, the farmers who make up this collective no longer find it cost-effective to sell directly to the Julie McKays of this world, and so she must buy her Cabot cheese and butter from a distributor in New Hampshire.
At the moment, however, the danger seems a long way off. Back at the Adamant Co-op, customers are arriving and talking knowledgeably about one another’s daily lives. Samosas made by a Congolese refugee in nearby Montpelier are for sale, as are calzones prepared by a town resident. The atmosphere is close and intimate, yet not confining. "The store almost closed a few years ago," the Co-op’s presiding spirit, Janet MacLeod, says. "We’d always sold cigarettes and beer, but people wanted wine—people in Vermont didn’t use to drink wine. And they wanted organic food." And so the store evolved, like the rest of the stores in the Alliance, responding to local needs. "We used to sell Twinkies," Janet says, "but not anymore."
Adam Lehner is an editor at the Drawing Center, in New York City.
Adamant Co-op 1313 Haggett Rd., Adamant; 802/223-5760
Currier’s Quality Market 1 Main St., Glover; 802/525-8822
Evansville Trading Post 645 Evansville Rd., Brownington; 802/754-6305
Floyd’s Store 2964 Vermont Rte. 66, Randolph Center; 802/728-5333
Warren Country Store 284 Main St., Warren; 802/496-3864
Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores www.vaics.org