Country stores: A Vermont tradition
Country stores have to diversify. They can’t rest on the laurels of what came before; they have to evolve with the times and offer people what they want.
— Rick Benson, Gilfeather’s Fine Provisions
ADDISON COUNTY — We, two Middlebury College students, set off on a mission: 16 country stores, 408 miles, one week.
Our wild, cross-county expedition was motivated by a slew of questions: Why have multiple Vermont country stores closed across the state in recent years? What is the future of country stores? What makes a store, a country store?
We interviewed the owners at each store to uncover their challenges, triumphs and everything in between.
These traditional mainstays of Vermont life come in all different shapes, sizes and colors, with personalities as unique as the enthusiastic and determined individuals who own them. No two stores are the same, but don’t worry — every single one sells maple syrup.
CHALLENGES COUNTRY STORES FACE
Country stores have been a staple of Vermont life for longer than anyone can remember. Today their owners are braving the modern realities of everything from Amazon to farm consolidation.
According to the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, the number of country stores, general stores and village stores in Vermont has dropped from 245 in 2009 to 180 today.
These small stores can’t compete on prices with online providers like Amazon or large chain stores such as Walmart. Retail giants are pulling business away from locally owned mom-and-pop stores like many of the ones we visited.
Stores are also facing obstacles due to the increasing cost of doing business. Some country stores now accept payment with credit or debit cards, but swipe fees are affecting their bottom lines. The fee is only a couple percent of each purchase, but costs add up.
Also, most storeowners want to pay their employees as much as possible. But the increases in minimum wage can be a burden for small businesses to meet, especially in rural areas where customer traffic in low.
Finally, stores in rural areas take a hit when family-owned dairy farms go under. Vermont cow dairy farms have decreased consistently from 1,015 in 2010 to 675 today, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Fewer farms mean fewer families living in rural areas, and thus fewer people to support small, rural businesses, including country stores.
“There is absolutely a negative effect on local infrastructure when dairies go out of business,” said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. “Tractor dealers, hardware stores, local restaurants — everyone suffers from decline in farm income.”
Although value-added and diversified production have developed as a response to farm consolidation and closures, these evolutions have not completely prevented the negative impacts on local businesses, according to Costello.
NOT AN EASY JOB
We found that owning a country store is not for the faint of heart. Ownership entails early mornings, late nights, and often seven-day workweeks.
Kamuda’s Country Market in Pittsford has been open every day since its founding 80 years ago.
“It can sound like something to be prideful of, but there’s a challenge — balancing family not only for the ownership, but for the employees,” said owner Brian Kamuda. He tries to be constantly mindful of his employees’ time and finding time to spend with his own family.
Many store owners with children talked about the challenge of balancing the nonstop hours of a country store with family life.
“I feel like I’m pulled in a lot of directions,” said Sara Deering, owner of Hubbard’s Country Store in Hancock. “It’s not that I don’t want to be here, I just have a family.”
Sometimes family members pitch in to help stores run smoothly. When she first bought Lincoln General Store in 1991, Vaneasa Stearns put a bed in the back room for her two young daughters. She recounts the essential role her mother played in helping keep an eye on the girls.
A couple owners grew up in country stores themselves and got their first lessons in store ownership from parents or grandparents who held the store before them.
HOW COUNTRY STORES ARE CHANGING
The country stores we visited know the challenges they’re up against, and they’re not backing down.
“Country stores have to diversify. They can’t rest on the laurels of what came before; they have to evolve with the times and offer people what they want,” said Rick Benson of Gilfeather’s Fine Provisions on Route 7 near the post office in Ferrisburgh. Different stores are offering new products and services as ways to bring in more business.
The quaint, old-fashioned Shelburne Country Store, which is jammed with sundry items, has gone full 21st century, digitizing its stock so products can be bought online. Many stores have expanded their delis and added more prepared food options for customers who are on the move.
Hubbard’s Country Store draws in customers with its delicious baked goods, while the Monkton General Store and Addison Four Corners Store both sell homemade chocolate. Pratt’s Store in Bridport and Kamuda’s Country Market offer catering services. Most stores have expanded their selections of local goods, including Vermont craft beers and wines.
THE FUTURE OF COUNTRY STORES
“Use it, or lose it,” said Stearns when asked about the future of Vermont country stores. If local residents would be sad to see their local country store close its doors, then they need to go there — consistently.
Country store owners know that their goods may be a few cents more expensive than ordering from Amazon or heading to a big grocery store, and they are realistic. No owner is expecting a customer to do all of their shopping at their store.
“Bread, milk, eggs,” said Darcee Alderman of Monkton General Store, “that’s all.” If everyone committed to buying one or two things a week at their local country store, it would make a huge difference, she continued.
“It’s keeping the community going, it’s putting food on a family’s table instead of paying for someone’s third or fourth home,” Alderman said about making the decision to support a local country store.
Deering also has a vision for how country stores can support one another. She thinks that owners should do more networking and keep an open dialogue, maybe over social media. Everyone can work together to drive customers to each other’s stores, she said.
She has also noticed that local breweries have created passports — little booklets where you can check off each one as you visit — to encourage people to make multiple stops.
“I’d like to see something like that for country stores,” Deering said.
WHY COUNTRY STORES MATTER
“A community hub” — that’s how many of the country store owners described their businesses. “People want a place to come where they feel like they’re bonded with something,” Deering said.
Country stores do exactly that, serving as places for people to gather and connect with one another. Owners believe their stores create feelings of unity between community members, and create bridges to their town’s past.
“Have you ever walked into a big grocery store and seen someone smiling? No,” Gary Wisell of the Ripton Country Store noted. In country stores, smiles and laughter are the norm. Owners work hard to meet customer requests and build personal relationships.
“It’s never good for towns to lose small businesses,” Darwyn Pratt said.
Those familiar with the economics of rural areas note that loss of community connection can be as detrimental as the loss of jobs and services.
Holly Hathaway runs Kampersville Country Store in Salisbury. Although her store is somewhat different from most of the other country stores, because it serves a campground with seasonal customers as well as a broader community, Hathaway has lived here her whole life and has a sense for the business community in the Green Mountain State.
She feels confident that country stores are not going anywhere in the near future.
“I think people are generally starting to appreciate tradition, and country stores are tradition in Vermont,” she said. “They’ve been here forever.”
In our weeklong journey crisscrossing Addison County, with stops south in Pittsford and north in Shelburne as well, what’s apparent is that storeowners are deliberately combating the cookie cutter chain stores that dominate the retail realm.
They are seeking to keep alive an American tradition of businesses that not only provide jobs and convenience, but that care about their employees and their customers, have hometown roots and foster community.
It’s no wonder that country stores hold a special place in Vermonters’ hearts. They are very simply part of what makes Vermont… Vermont.
Click here to read profiles of the 16 stores Caroline and Nora visited.
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