NORWICH, Vt. — Before sunrise, a maroon Dodge pickup rumbles into the parking lot of Dan & Whit’s general store. Its driver, Mat Fraser, descends into the basement where embers glow in three wood stoves, barely staving off the worst of the winter cold. Fraser feeds the beasts with wood that he and his 80-year-old father, George, cut and split twice daily at the family lumber yard. And when the morning rush ambles in hours later, they find a warm oasis and Mat’s brother, Dan, the smiling face of the operation, in the office.
The two brothers are polar opposites. Mat, 48, spends most of his time tending to things in the basement, speaks in monosyllabic murmurs, and wears Keens and Carhartt. Dan, 53, could very well be an auctioneer. “Look for the guy in the flowery rainbow button-down and zebra loafers,” said a cashier. But they have one thing in common: ownership of this storied operation. Like their father, George, and his father, the namesake Dan, the brothers have helped maintain Dan & Whit’s status as a king among Vermont country stores.
The multigenerational model has kept the stoves lit and lights on at 319 Main St. for over a century. Three generations of the Merrill family ran the general store before college buddies Dan Fraser and William Whitney Hicks took over in 1955.
Such a model is increasingly rare. Across the state, as longtime general store proprietors retire, they struggle to find anyone, even their children, willing to take on the debt, maintenance, and 12- to 16-hour days that come with ownership. That, combined with the competition of Amazon and Dollar Generals, has led to over a hundred stores shuttering in the last two decades.
Country stores are as quintessential to the Vermont countryside as bodegas are to the streets of Queens. To the passing tourist, they may appear as mere souvenir shops where you can stock up on maple syrup and a Bernie Sanders mug before heading south. But to the locals, they are as crucial as a watering hole in the African Sahara. Here gossip is exchanged, political campaigns waged and won, fund-raisers launched, and eggs sold.
These often ramshackle buildings are in many ways a metaphor for Vermont itself. Small, but mighty. Torn between the present and the past. For sale: hunting licenses, kombucha, fishing worms, and arborio rice. Bulletin boards with advertisements for sheep shearers and handmade hemp oils. Coolers with $2 Bud Lights and $8 Heady Toppers. A rainbow LGBTQ flag billowing next to a wooden caricature of a Native American.
But their future in the changing landscape of Vermont is increasingly uncertain.
“The loss of general stores in the past 20 years does reflect the challenges facing rural communities in Vermont and beyond,” said Ben Doyle, president of Preservation Trust Vermont. “But along the way and throughout the loss, people also realized their value and developed really exciting models for their revitalization and endurance.”
Dan & Whit’s has been open 365 days a year for as long as Dan Fraser can remember. But that streak was almost broken last year when the pandemic emptied nearby Dartmouth College, a key source of customers and help. Dan & Whit’s staff evaporated overnight. In response, four dozen customers, most over the age of 70, picked up four- to six-hour shifts, often donating their wages to charity.
The effort saved the Norwich institution from having to shutter for the first time since Dan and Whit’s takeover. But few Vermont towns have the means of Norwich, one of the state’s wealthiest ZIP codes, with a median household income on par with Brookline’s. An axiom that sums up the state’s wealth disparity: Vermonters either have three homes or three jobs. Most Norwich residents sit squarely in the first group. Country stores in less wealthy pockets of the state can’t operate on the same grand scale as Dan & Whit’s, where the motto reads, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
In other towns, where generational ownership of the local general store is no longer an option, another model has emerged in the form of the community trust. At least eight towns, from East Calais to Peacham to Gilford to Shrewsbury, have adopted this approach. A band of local citizens buys and renovates a sputtering general store. As landlords, they take care of the often overwhelming cost of maintaining a centuries-old building in the harsh winters of Vermont. And a proprietor oversees the management of the store.
“This is a model that exists to correct a market failure. In most iconic general stores, they are not generating enough income to rehabilitate the building, so there is a lot of deferred maintenance,” said Doyle. “And when it comes to transferring ownership, there is this insurmountable debt. And that’s the [source of] failure. The community trust model relieves it by finding philanthropic dollars to handle the real estate cost.”
In Elmore, a tiny town in the state’s northeast corner, a community trust of nine citizens raised $400,000 to save their general store on the shores of Lake Elmore. A young couple living in Mississippi, Mike Stanley and Kate Gluckman, answered the trust’s job posting, packed up their things and biscuit recipe, and took over as proprietors at the start of the new year.
They were immediately met with hardship when the United States Postal Service announced the 160 vintage P.O. Boxes on the store’s back wall would be moved to another town. The Post Office traffic brought critical revenue to the store (“Come for mail and beer, leave with the beer,” said one customer).
“The USPS pretty much said there wasn’t going to be any discussion about it,” said Trevor Braun, a member of the trust.
But then the community blitzed USPS with a barrage of letters. The hundreds involved in the community campaign far outnumbered the mere 160 threatened P.O. Boxes. The Vermont congressional delegation — Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Representative Peter Welch — even appealed to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
Finally, USPS just seemed to give up.
“I think they weren’t expecting so much outrage,” said Braun. “A little fight can go a long way.”
For 60 years, Box #15 has belonged to Nancy Allen, a soil conservationist with the USDA and a local farmer. She’s lived across from the Elmore Store nearly her entire life and knows the town’s quirks as well as anyone.
“Elmorians do not like kale. They are spinach people through and through,” she declared on a recent Tuesday while delivering eggs courtesy of her 125 hens, or “beautiful girls.”
Stanley and Gluckman learned that change does not come easy to a town of just 866 residents. Right after they took over management, the store’s longtime cookie supplier closed. The couple found a new local baker to fill the void but changed the price to two cookies for $1, rather than the previous four for $2. Customers complained that the new cookie wasn’t as good. One person grilled Stanley on why they had raised the price, which of course they had not.
“That’s when I knew there was no winning,” said Stanley, a Missouri native who previously served with the Merchant Marine in New Orleans and Mississippi.
Vermont has a reputation for being less than welcoming to outsiders. Locals often deride out-of-staters as “flatlanders.” Sometimes the mindset manifests through cookie criticism, but it can also materialize in more sinister ways.
Consider the saga of the country store in Putney, a southern town near Brattleboro, which burned down not once but twice in the early 2000s. The first blaze, an electrical fire, scorched the roof of the historic building. The second, caused by an arsonist, incinerated the entire place to ash. Residents picked up shovels to rebuild. Loggers donated lumber. And then the search for a new storekeeper began.
A proprietor of a store in Westminster, Mass., was instantly interested in the Putney gig when a local apple picker recommended it to him. It seemed like a great fit. But the man also happened to be a Taiwanese American moving to a state that is 94 percent white. After a year and a half he quit, citing the racism he experienced from customers and the community. He now runs a grocery store in Connecticut.
“I mean, this is considered to be one the most liberal towns in Vermont, right? But that doesn’t tell the full story. The whole mentality behind ‘flatlanders’ is just code for racism,” said Lyssa Papazian, vice-chair of the Preservation Trust of Vermont board and a Putney resident.
Farther north, in the sleepy northeast town of Marshfield, a group of new Vermonters hopes their country store model will help increase diversity in the state. Earlier this year, Avani Pisapati, 26, Rachel Wilson, 39, and Michelle Eddleman McCormick, 44, raised $700,000 through anonymous donors to buy and rehab the Marshfield Village Store. The three friends restructured the store as a worker-owned cooperative.
“There are hardly any country stores, or even businesses for that matter, in the state whose ownership looks like ours,” said Wilson. “The hope is that our presence will mean something to BIPOC customers and make Vermont a more diverse place.”
The trio is new to country store ownership and has spent the first month learning the quirks of the trade, such as how to use the game weighing station in time for turkey season, or prepare for state approval of a Electronic Benefits Transfer system to accommodate SNAP participants. Ken Gokey, 72, who has lived in the area since a local foster family adopted him at 3 years old, held an impromptu workshop on operating the store’s coffee maker.
“You’re not going to sell much coffee with an empty pot,” he said to Wilson one afternoon while flashing a gentle, elf-like smile.
Country stores exist to provide the material essentials — eggs, toilet paper, bait and tackle, beer, and Ben & Jerry’s — and the nonessentials — homemade mittens, carrot cake, cream soda, and artisanal bread flour. But, their staunchest defenders agree that less tangible things make the stores worth saving.
Take Gokey and Wilson’s conversation. Or the group of volunteers that gathered last April to save an errant beaver that had slipped into a dam behind the Putney General Store. Or the toy corner at Dan & Whit’s where many a parent who left the store has hurriedly returned to find their child happily lingering.
Nancy Allen summed up the country store mystique on a recent Tuesday afternoon with the sun setting over an icy Lake Elmore.
“You wander into the Elmore Store, and Jimmy’s making pizza. He gets to talking, and so do you and eventually, you forget why you came,” she explained. “You get home and then realize you’ve forgotten the milk.”
Thankfully, her commute back to the store — about 200 yards — isn’t too bad. And to her, the store is almost an extension of her own home.
“With these country stores, yes, you do pay more. But you’re paying more to support local. There is nothing like being surrounded by a community. The country store is at the heart of all that,” Allen said.
“That, of course,” she said with a pause and a mischievous smile, “and the fact that you get to know everything about everybody when you visit.”
That week in early March, word was just about everyone had fled south to Florida. One Elmorian, tanned from a jaunt to Key West, popped into the Elmore Store to “check the mail and get some beer.” He left with a four-pack in hand and his P.O. Box unopened. In Norwich, tucked in one of Dan & Whit’s many dusty corners, a sign sat clipped to an old red shopping cart where a local resident collects knives for sharpening: “On vacation.”