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Preserving Vermont’s General Stores

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

Photo: Ben Stechschulte

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.

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