Community effort leads to renovations of East Calais General Store

General stores are typically the backbone of small communities across our region.
Published: Jun. 9, 2023 at 6:09 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2023 at 6:16 AM EDT
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EAST CALAIS, Vt. (WCAX) - General stores are typically the backbone of small communities across our region, but many have closed their doors citing increased costs, higher wages and the pandemic’s impact.

The Vermont Retail & Grocers Association said at the height of it, Vermont had 250 general stores. Now, there are around 95-100 in the state. But some communities are doing what they can to make sure their stores don’t join the list of those that have closed.

On Vermont’s Route 14 sits a building that has seen a lot of change in 200 years. The East Calais General Store served as the community hub and grocery store until it closed in 2019.

“You have to drive to Montpelier or drive to Hardwick or over the hill. It’s hard on people, especially during the pandemic. It was very hard,” said Marc Mihaly with the East Calais Community Trust.

For a group of villagers in East Calais, joining the ranks of rural towns and holding onto the ghost of a general store past was not an option. They created what’s called a community-supported enterprise through the Preservation Trust of Vermont, securing $2.7 million in grants to buy and rehab the store without debt.

“The whole building wasn’t up to snuff. So with the grants that we have, we had to bring it back to historic standards,” said Denise Wheeler with East Calais Community Trust.

Wheeler and Mihaly say townspeople crave the value the store brings to the village, the conversation, convenience and community. They say the 1,900-square-foot building will be built with efficiency in mind and filled with grab-and-go food, local farm goods and, of course, a creemee window. Three low- to moderate-income apartments will be above the store.

“We hope to still have that atmosphere when we reopen because that’s what people want. They want it. They don’t want it to look like Shaw’s or big Maple Fields or anything like that,” said Wheeler.

“For general stores to be successful, particularly in rural communities, they really need to be responsive to the communities they serve,” said Ben Doyle of the Preservation Trust of Vermont

Maintaining the unique character a general store brings to Vermont is the name of the game for Doyle and the Preservation Trust of Vermont, who said the state is seeing a general store renaissance coming out of the pandemic.

“I think people really recognize what an important gathering place they are. And so you’re seeing kind of new models of economic development in which communities are like rallying together,” said Doyle.

East Calais’ historic community space isn’t the only one in Vermont getting new life. Doyle said they’ve been contacted by people in towns with general stores closing including Putney, Barnard, Guilford, Elmore and Albany.