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Preserving Vermont’s General Stores

Ben Stechschulte Floyd's Store, in Randolph Center, Vermont

Photo: Ben Stechschulte

"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.

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