Vermont country stores evolve for a new generation

Published: Oct. 29, 2021 at 5:36 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s independent country stores are in the state’s DNA -- the lifeblood of many small, rural communities. Governor Phil Scott this month recognized the importance of these informal town centers.

It’s where you grab groceries, fill up the tank, and catch up with neighbors.

Owner Linda Pecor has stood behind the counter at Beaudry’s General Store in Huntington for 43 years, cashing out customers who’ve grown to feel like family. “I’ve watched children grow up and come back with their families.” She says it’s her patrons who’ve kept the store afloat. “If you build a good base, they take care of you,” Pecor said.

Jim Baumann has been taking care of Beaudry’s for 35 years. “They’re very friendly people here, that’s for sure, and they care about the town,” he said. “You don’t just come in and get a gallon of milk. You come here and talk with people.”

That’s what Vermont’s independent country stores are all about -- connection. But many of these community hubs have closed in recent years. Ten to 15 years ago, the Vermont Retail & Grocers’ Association counted about 250 across the state. Today, there’s only between 85 to 95. Still, VRGA Executive Director Erin Sigrist says that’s growth compared to the last few years, when numbers were down even further.

“We’re in transition, we’re seeing the generation before looking to retire. Now we’re seeing the new generation come in and redefine what the country store is or just update what the country store is,” Sigrist said.

That new generation is catering to a different crowd, offering a variety of services and goods. Some stores have established delis or sell Vermont-made products. For Beaudry’s, it meant leasing out the former deli space to a local catering business.

“You participation in keeping them alive is really going to just strengthen the community,” Sigrist said.

If a country store is struggling to survive or it’s on the brink of closure, loyal customers can step up to not only help it survive but to give it the resources to thrive. That’s where community support enterprise (CSE) projects come in.

“What happens is, a community comes together to form a nonprofit organization, purchase the building, renovate the building to make it accessible and up to code and efficient, and then often leases it out to a for-profit store or operator who can run the business but with reduced overhead expenses to ensure that the store remains viable long-term,” said Ben Doyle, president of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

The non-profit group can consist of parents, lawyers, or teachers -- any person in the community. The preservation trust then guides them in efforts to raise philanthropic dollars. Doyle says the Preservation Trust, in collaboration with these non-profit groups, have revitalized dozens of country stores this way. For example, residents rallies around Brownsville Butcher & Pantry in 2019, saving the store. “This is really a question about our rural communities viable for the future? And just like you need a school or places to gather like a town hall, a general store is really a community gathering place,” Doyle said.

Places that are sewn into the fabric of Vermont’s identity.

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