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Slayton: The Real Deal

12/27/11 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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Porch, Barnard General Store
"We have a motto.  You name it we have it. All we have to do is find it."

(HOST) We're spending this week revisiting that iconic enterprise, The General Store, in a joint project with the Billings Farm and Museum of Woodstock.  Last summer, commentator Tom Slayton visited several, and discovered some ways to tell the truly historic stores from newer ones.  Here's his method.

(SLAYTON) How do you know you're in a real general store? Well, it's partly a matter of intuition, but there are some clues that will help you identify Vermont's genuine historic stores and differentiate them from newer convenience stores and tourist-oriented stand-ins.

So, while keeping in mind that no general store will meet all of these criteria, here are a few hallmarks of the real thing, at least in the Green Mountains.

Look for a creaky wooden floor that "talks" when you walk on it. That's one major clue that the store you're in is genuine, because those old wooden floors are usually part of an old building, frequently an historic one. The ownership of general stores may change from time to time. But their buildings often have been in use for a century or more.

They are old and well-used, these store buildings, and they don't conform to any kind of cookie-cutter standard. You may find yourself wandering through back rooms so far from the front of the store that you wonder if you should have unwound a ball of yarn on your way in to find your way out!

Way out back, Dan and Whits

At Dan & Whit's in Norwich, for example, you can ease yourself through a narrow space at the north end of the meat counter to get into the hardware section. And then that section goes on and on until you know you're getting close to the back of the store when you see the pet food dishes and the barbecue grills. The building that houses Dan & Whit's doesn't have a clapboarded "old new England" look. But the labyrinth-like interior of the store tells you right away this is no standardized supermarket.

And that's part of the point: general stores look like themselves; they don't follow any particular plan. In most cases, that's because they've grown organically, one room or section at a time, to meet customer demands that changed over the years.

Here's another quick clue to help you find the real general store: location. Look near the center of town. Historically, town centers are where general stores were located. Today's convenience stores are more often on the outskirts of town, because they are products of the automobile age and their focus is the highway.

Like many such stores throughout Vermont, the Barnard General Store has a porch that is popular with locals who might want to gaze at Silver Lake, just across the way. Kids in wet bathing suits and damp hair traipse in for snacks and sweets from the 1950s-style soda fountain. Perhaps the most characteristic sound of summer in Barnard is their happy chatter, punctuated by the screen door slamming behind them.

The Barnard Store has a deli and a website - two contemporary items that might puzzle the general store owners of days gone by. But many of today's general stores have such things.

That's just another example of how the stores have adapted to meet the needs of their customers - and survive economically - as times change.

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