Historic town store ready for new chapter in N.H.
FRANCESTOWN, N.H. — “WANTED! A really nice person with business experience to open the reimagined Francestown Village Store.”
That’s the homespun pitch circulating in trade journals in search of someone to perform a vital civic duty — supply tiny Francestown with coffee, sandwiches, and 11th-hour rations for family barbecues.
“We are looking forward to hearing from you,” the ad concludes in classic New Hampshire understatement.
What Francestown really wants is nothing less than an emergency infusion of commercial and social life on historic Main Street, where the Village Store operated nonstop for 203 years before a bankruptcy auction in 2017.
In its absence, there is no central place to meet in the morning, gab about politics, size up the Red Sox, grab a muffin and a paper, and poke good-natured fun at neighbors as they walk through the door.
Without it, resident Charlie Pyle said, “there is no beating heart of the town.”
But hopes are high that the general store — the only Main Street business in this town of 1,600 people 25 miles west of Manchester — will soon make a triumphant return.
The community has raised more than $100,000 for long-overdue renovations to the rambling building through a smorgasbord of small-town events, from a trivia night to a road race to a pancake breakfast. And in January, nearly 100 people gathered in the cold for an open house with coffee and doughnuts.
In all, more than 150 local families have donated to the project, a robust testament to the store’s cherished status.
“When this closed, it really was a sad day,” said Jennifer Vadney, whose grandparents and great-grandparents owned the store in the decades after World War II. “You drove by, and there was this hole in town.”
Changes in ownership over the last decade — one left town to expand elsewhere, another couldn’t make the economics work in an age of bigger and cheaper competitors — left the store vacant.
The store’s prospects seemed bleak. But on the day the auction gavel fell two years ago, a 91-year-old Nevada philanthropist read about the store in the Wall Street Journal, called startled town officials out of the blue, and eventually paid $125,000 for the purchase price, back taxes, and an unpaid water bill.
As part of the transaction, Bill Smith donated the building to the Francestown Improvement and Historical Society, whose members were giddy at their dizzying reversal of fortune.
“Really?” Pyle recalled asking Smith over the phone. “You want to do what?”
In an interview, Smith said he had never been to New Hampshire when he made that call. The decision to give the building to the historical society was “a quirk, really,” he said with a chuckle.
“I realized how important that store was to the community,” said Smith, whose career has ranged from an ice-cream stand to farming to the Peace Corps in Uruguay. “I have a foundation, and we like to make contributions. This sounded like fun.”
Smith made the cross-country trip to Francestown last spring with his three daughters, and nearly 100 people showed up on three days notice to greet him with a potluck supper.
“It was so bizarre,” Vadney recalled. “He was thanking us, and we’re saying, ‘No, thank you!’ ”
Over two centuries, the building — also called The Long Store — has housed banks, a harness shop, grain shed, and 19th-century firehouse.
But since the store closed, the nearest places to buy lunch or groceries have been several miles away in neighboring communities.
“I now have a 15-minute drive to get lunch,” Town Administrator Jamie Pike said on a recent afternoon when even the public library was closed. “I want to do a two-minute walk.”
And as beautiful as it is, Francestown can resemble a ghost town to passersby on their way to the nearby Crotched Mountain resort. The village store gave skiers and leaf-peepers a reason to stop, a chance to experience a slice of small-town New England.
Selectman Brad Howell remembers the store from his childhood when he visited the town in summer.
“It was the ‘New England store,’ ” Howell said. “You can have a nice suburb with restaurants and strip malls, but this was different.”
So different, in fact, that locals say the business was the second-oldest continuously operated general store in the country. At a time of relentless pressure from mega-markets, the Village Store had been more than just a place to grab a mug of dark roast; it had helped stitch Francestown together since the War of 1812.
Such stores have been disappearing from the state’s smaller communities, said Kimberly Alexander, a University of New Hampshire history professor who teaches about their importance.
“Many have been lost and shuttered,” Alexander said. What goes with them, she added, “is a feeling of connection with the community. It’s a different type of experience from getting into a car and driving 20 minutes to a mall.”
In Francestown, the 146-foot amalgamation of old buildings that comprise the store and its attachments is being fitted with new wiring, plumbing, and insulation, among other ground-to-attic improvements, said Sarah Pyle, who chairs the historical society’s committee that oversees the project.
When the renovation is finished, the store will have 1,200 square feet of retail space, a commercial-grade kitchen, and a deli counter with a seating area of 15 by 20 feet.
The historical society will pay the building’s property taxes and insurance costs, Charlie Pyle said, and expects to charge the new proprietor just enough to cover those expenses.
“We're not looking to make a lot of money,” he said.
Even so, a new twist on an old formula for success might be in order for a new proprietor, locals said. Maybe a niche product to complement the essentials; maybe another sideline that nobody has thought about.
In addition to business experience, Pyle said, “we want to find somebody who’s fun and outgoing.”
Vadney said she believes a shopkeeper can be found by late spring or early summer, and locals say the store’s return can’t come soon enough.
“It’ll mean bringing back part of the heart of the town,” Pyle said. As well as a place to buy a coffee.