Slayton: Enduring Enterprise
12/26/11 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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"Here comes a customer now... You sell gas here?"
(HOST) Last summer, in partnership with the Billings Farm and Museum of Woodstock, we explored a cultural icon that we are revisiting this week. Vermont's General Stores are enduring enterprises with a strong sense of place that commentator Tom Slayton says are living links to the history of our region.
General stores - sometimes known as country stores - are unusual in
today's hyper-paced, efficiency driven commercial world because they
have chosen a different path, evolving over the years, keying themselves
to the slower rhythm of Vermont's rural towns and villages. In a
society that often values size and sameness, they have chosen to remain
small and distinctive.
Unlike chain stores and supermarkets, the business model of each general store is slightly different, a reflection of the local community. In fact, many general store owners would laugh at the idea of a business model because they have simply adapted over the years to the desires of their own special clientele.
For example, the array of merchandise you'll find in F.H. Gillingham's in downtown Woodstock is sure to be different than the offerings in the Barnard General Store, just 16 miles away. And both will be different from what's on sale at Dan & Whit's General Store over in Norwich.
But there is a common denominator that unites all Vermont general stores - and that is their desire to serve the needs of their community, whether those needs may be bread, gourmet salad dressing, or jumper cables.
And they still play their role as their town's nerve center. You ‘re not likely to find the town's elderly farmers playing checkers next to the pot-bellied stove there on a wintry night . Television and self-service shelves ended that kind of socializing long ago. But people still take the time to swap news and gossip over their purchases, and the fact that many general stores now offer food (and a place to eat it) is restoring their traditional function as a meeting place. Also, most stores have a community bulletin board with news of local sales, auctions, church suppers, and the latest litter of kittens looking for homes.
In an increasingly dehumanized world, general stores offer a human face. And although they might be considered an anachronism in today's busy world, in actuality they are as current as today. It's just that they do "today" on a different scale and at a different pace than you might be used to.
They are well worth getting to know because, when you get to know the local general store, you take the first step in getting to know the town or village in which it's located. And that means a better understanding - a closer acquaintance if you will - with Vermont.