Pratt’s Store marks its 50th year serving Bridport
BRIDPORT — When Bridport folks are missing key ingredients for a meal, a do-it-yourself project or a party, they utter the same refrain: “I can get that at Pratt’s; they have everything.”
And that’s the way it’s been for the past 50 years, when Darwin Pratt bought the store in Bridport on Route 22A near Route 125 West. Darwin, then a young lad of 20, had gained a ton of experience during his high school years working at several local stores, including what is now called “Shafer’s Market” at 50 College St. in Middlebury. He simultaneously held down a job at the Monument Farms dairy in Weybridge.
Pratt knew what it took to run a small store and decided he was ready to become self-employed.
“I thought it was time to try something myself,” Pratt said this week.
So with financial help from his dad and the First National Bank of Orwell, Pratt acquired his Bridport store from the Broughton family.
The family knew it was just the latest custodian of a Bridport mercantile center that dates back more than a century. Its previous names included Fletcher’s, Spaulding & Petty and Broughton’s. In the old days, the store used to sell food and supplies in bulk. It changed with the times to reflect its customers’ evolving needs. Fewer farms and big families meant less emphasis on bulk sales. Smaller families — often with two parents in the workforce — has prompted Pratt’s to place a premium on “convenience,” such as a large deli that serves up tasty breakfast, lunch and dinner fare, like sandwiches and pre-made suppers of spaghetti, meatloaf, ham and other homemade favorites.
“A lot of the time, people plan their day so they’re around here at lunchtime,” Darwin’s daughter, Stacey (Pratt) Stone, said with a smile.
Indeed, Pratt’s really can’t be called a “general store” at this point. It’s become much more than that. The Pratt family, during its ownership, has more than doubled the store size from the original 1,200 square feet to approximately 3,000 square feet. And all of that space is put to good use. This isn’t just a place to grab a gallon of milk, a scratch ticket and a loaf of bread on the way home from work. Pratt’s has remained vital by offering a wider variety of items than your typical mom-and-pop operation.
THE PRATT FAMILY has more than doubled the size of the store over 50 years so that it offers 3,000 square feet of space, plus an apartment upstairs for the proprietors.
Photo courtesy of Stacey Stone
It’s really a grocery store. And a hardware store. And a restaurant.
You’ll find, among other things, fresh produce, maple syrup, snacks, canned foods, cereal, condiments, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and of course one of the best-stocked delis in the county.
Short a quart of motor oil?
Pratt’s has it.
Need a birthday card lickety-split?
Pratt’s has those, too. Not to mention funnels, padlocks, tape and even paint.
The Pratt family’s business philosophy is simple and sensible: In an era when small general stores are folding as they continue to lose customers to major shopping hubs, why not create your own shopping hub?
“We try to give people what they need,” said Darwin Pratt, who makes a point of stocking local products whenever possible. “And if it’s something we don’t have, we’ll order it.”
‘HEART OF THE COMMUNITY’
And that’s what has kept generations of Bridport families dedicated to their local store.
Bridport resident Marie Audet has been a loyal Pratt’s shopper for many years. She called the Pratt family “a local treasure. I’m so happy they’re here.”
She explained that many Bridport families live 10 or more miles way from Middlebury, and Pratt’s has provided a solid, local option for purchases close to home. The store also draws customers from as far away as Vergennes and Benson, and gets a lot of loyal shoppers from nearby New York state.
“They make sure everyone is happy,” Audet said of the Pratts. “They are part of the heart of our community.”
Customer service has remained job one, and it’s kept Darwin and his wife, Sue, awake some nights — when they’ve answered a knock on the door from a weary traveler asking if they could turn on their gas pump to replenish an empty fuel tank.
LONG BEFORE IT was Pratt’s Store, a retail establishment in the building at the corner of Routes 22A and 125W was known as “Fletcher’s.” Like Pratt’s it was a general store.
Photo courtesy of Stacey Stone
The Pratts haven’t left anyone stranded yet.
“I am so happy to have customers from Bridport and the surrounding towns support me, when stores in a lot of other towns are closing,” Darwin Pratt said.
Stone recalled the day two guys named “Ben” and “Jerry” stopped by the store encouraging the Pratts to carry their funky new brand of premium ice cream. Stone was surprised by the suggested retail price, but people were willing to pay it. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade is of course now an international phenomenon.
While Pratt’s Store doesn’t have a potbelly stove surrounded by seats, shoppers still like to linger at the counter and catch up on local gossip.
And some customers leave with a lot more than a just a bagful of groceries.
Darwin and his son Corey Pratt are both justices of the peace. As such, they’re qualified to perform marriage ceremonies. Some have taken place in Darwin and Sue Pratt’s apartment above the store. They’ve also officiated at unions in local residents’ yards, on Mount Philo and at Mead Chapel at Middlebury College.
Darwin Pratt estimates he’s joined around 160 couples in holy matrimony. And after one of the Pratts marries a couple, the store is able to cater the reception. Pratt’s branched into catering three years ago, and already has around 10 weddings lined up this year.
“What they want, we can do,” Pratt said.
Public service has been important to all members of the family.
Corey Pratt is a Bridport firefighter, member of the local Board of Civil Authority, has been a flag football coach, and is involved with the Friends of Middlebury Hockey. Darwin Pratt is also a member of the BCA, and is chairman of the Tri-Town Water District board. The store routinely raises money for community organizations and local families who might be down on their luck.
Pratt’s has created local jobs to help support local households.
It was just Darwin, his parents and a part-timer who managed the store back in ’69. The staff has now grown to 17 full- and part-time employees, including a few who’ve been there more than a decade. Joyce Sunderland has worked at Pratt’s off and on since 1995.
“They’re wonderful people to work for,” Sunderland said of the Pratt family.
“We have a loyal employee base that wants the store to survive as much as the Pratt family does,” he said.
Corey began hanging around his folks’ store counter when he was 5; his sister, Stacey, became a regular helper at age 9. Both are now full-time employees and are committed to keeping the enterprise in the family.
“I feel like Pratt’s Store is like another sibling,” Stone said. “It’s been part of our lives since we were born.”
“It feels great to carry on our dad’s passion,” she added.
And that’s music to her dad’s ears.
“I feel I’m the luckiest storeowner on the state of Vermont,” Pratt said.
The Pratts want their customers to share in the store’s 50th birthday celebration. So they’re planning a bunch of special 50th birthday specials through which shoppers can save significant money. Specials will extend to meats, pizzas, fish and other products. Several longtime suppliers to the store will donate prizes to raffle off. Plans call for hotdogs to be sold at 50 cents each on Wednesdays during the month of May, in a charitable effort that will benefit the Bridport Fire Department. Pratt’s will host a “Bridport Day” during which local businesses will converge on the store property to showcase their products.
Look for more specifics in a store’s flyer to be included in an upcoming issue of the Independent.
Though Darwin Pratt is now in his golden years, he has no plans to retire.
He envisioned a 20-year career behind the counter, a benchmark he exceeded three decades ago.
“As long as I can keep doing it, I’m going to,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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