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Slayton: Surviving Change

12/29/11 5:55PM By Tom Slayton
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Dan and Whits, Norwich
"We take orders for headstones and we sell baby food and so I guess in essence we take care of our customers from the cradle to the grave."

(HOST) All this week, we're revisiting last summer's tour of Vermont's General Stores, produced in partnership with the Billings Farm and Museum. Today, commentator Tom Slayton considers why general stores, once the center of village life in Vermont, eventually began to change and assume the mostly subsidiary role they play today.

(SLAYTON) Five changes, maybe six, happened to nudge the general store out of the central role it played in the life of the Vermont village. The coming of the automobile, and better roads, eventually including superhighways, were two of those changes. Supermarkets were another. That makes three.

Number four, a big one, was the development of mass entertainment - movies, the radio, later, television, and eventually, the Internet. And that loaf of bread you now buy, ready made, might be a fifth significant change. Or perhaps it's just a symbol of the way most of our food now is ready-made and prepackaged.

A hundred years ago, bread used to be made at home, with yeast and flour bought in bulk from - the general store. There weren't 15 or 20 different kinds of crackers, prepackaged in boxes, available on the supermarket shelf. There was one kind of cracker - soda crackers. They came in a barrel and were sold by weight or count. Same thing for pickles and salt pork. The big round of cheese at some general stores is one of the last examples of that kind of bulk sales.

By the early 1900s, the first supermarkets were well established. The Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) had more than 200 stores, nationwide. They were self-service, which put an end to the old general store approach, where a clerk took your list and fetched your order for you from shelves behind his counter.

And finally, change-factor number 6: a new system of mail service - Rural Free Delivery (or RFD) - was instituted at the turn of the 20th century. Country people no longer had to pick up their mail at the village post office (which was often located at the general store). Now they could have their own mailboxes at home.

The addition of parcel post delivery soon after was a huge benefit to the mail-order companies like Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Items that formerly were bought at the general store could be ordered and sent directly to your home.

And the general store's role as the center of the village's evening entertainment - swapping stories - was gradually eroded by radio, television and the movies.
The fact is, our lives, our food-buying habits, our clothing, and our entertainments have all been transformed in the past century or so. And every one of those changes changed the role of the general store.

But here's the fascinating thing: those stores still survive in today's Vermont. Probably because Vermont remains a village culture, the local general store is often quite economically healthy.

They've had to change to meet the changing demands of the times. But general stores are alive and well in the Green Mountains today, meeting the needs of their customers, and helping us get to know and better understand the local communities they serve.


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