HOOKSETT, N.H. — Earlier this year, Tom Walsh perched his campaign sign on the windowsill at Robie’s Country Store. But Walsh, a Republican who’s running for reelection to the state Legislature, wasn’t just another candidate stumping at one of the region’s preeminent political landmarks. He’s the latest proprietor of a place known for its hot coffee, chitchat, and frequent visits from would-be presidents.
Walsh is the fourth person to operate the store on behalf of a preservation group that purchased the property from the Robie family 14 years ago. Since he opened for business in April, he’s already entertained candidates running for governor and Congress and, with the 2016 presidential primary approaching fast, he suspects it won’t be long before the first White House hopeful drops by to meet his customers.
“In a couple of years, it might get even more exciting,” said Walsh, who was wearing a Herman Cain T-shirt and drinking orange soda from a glass bottle one recent afternoon.
Like his predecessors, Walsh plans to welcome all candidates, but there are some he’d especially like to meet. “I would love to see Governor [Chris] Christie walk through the doors of this place. He would be a riot,” he said.
Robie’s has been around since the late 19th century when businessman George A. Robie bought a busy little shop on the banks of the Merrimack River. The store’s political history began more recently when, as the story goes, Jimmy Carter stopped by to meet voters during the early days of his 1976 presidential campaign. His visit was covered by the national press, and it wasn’t long before other candidates followed.
Lloyd and Dorothy Robie soon gained a reputation as good-natured hosts for candidates and the gaggles of journalists that followed them. Geography also helped secure Robie’s place on the campaign trail. Hooksett is a semi-rural border town between Manchester and Concord, which makes the store an easy stop for candidates in search of hands to shake. It’s also served as the backdrop for countless dispatches filed by political reporters looking for a window into life in the Granite State. One columnist called Robie’s part of the “political stations of the cross.” The New York Times featured it in a travel piece. A Dutch TV crew visited in 2012.
Stepping through the front door at Robie’s feels a bit like time travel and a bit like entering a shrine to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. There’s a tin ceiling overhead and long floorboards. Locals wander in to buy coffee, milk, maybe a pizza from the kitchen out back.
The walls are covered with souvenirs from past election cycles: bumper stickers, lawn signs, posters, and buttons. Some of the names are familiar: John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, both Romneys, both Bushes. Others – remember Phil Crane? – are a bit more obscure.
Keeping Robie’s the picture of rural retail politics hasn’t been easy. In 1997, when the Robies wanted to retire, a group of the store’s most loyal customers formed the nonprofit Robie’s Country Store Historic Preservation Corp. Since then, the corporation has spent about $100,000 maintaining the building. Recent projects include a new roof, a rebuilt chimney and work on the foundation, which needed repairs after decades of rattling from passing trains.
“There’s always a little something wrong somewhere,” said Robert Schroeder, president of the organization. “We try to stay up with it.”
He’s also kept up with the political celebrities passing through town. Over the years, Schroeder has met Bob Kerrey, Mitt Romney, Nancy Reagan, and John McCain.
“Good grief, the list just goes on and on,” he said. “It’s been a fun place to be, and that’s what we want to make sure it stays.”
A big part of the preservation effort has been finding people willing to operate the business. When the previous storekeeper stepped down last fall, Walsh was a logical replacement. He grew up helping in his parents’ restaurant in Manchester and was ready for a career change after decades of working in construction.
In the months since he took over, Walsh has installed a gleaming commercial kitchen and new coolers without altering the building’s historic feel. He’s stocking the shelves with locally made products and plans to expand the menu to include traditional New England fare.
The store’s collection of political paraphernalia continues to grow, too. One afternoon last week, someone walked in and presented Walsh with a light blue pencil designed to promote a write-in campaign organized on behalf of President Lyndon B. Johnson after he dropped his bid for reelection.