Update 1:10 p.m. — As of midday Saturday, the store had surpassed its $20,000 goal. See more at bottom of post.
The Monkton General Store was buzzing on Thursday afternoon, with customers grabbing scones, store-made chocolate, beer and pizza.
Carrie French, who lives just down the road, had her arms full of an odd assortment of goods.
"I'm getting a bunch of chocolates to take in to work with me to share with people and pretty much whatever I can find," she said with a laugh. French said she comes into the store many mornings to catch the town gossip over by the dozen or so coffee urns in the corner. But on this day, she cleaned the shelves because she heard the store is in trouble.
The northern Addison County store is the latest small country store to hit hard times. On Wednesday night the store let customers know it would close on Saturday night unless it raised a "significant" amount of money.
"At this time we need to ask our community to show support in ensuring that we are able to stay open and continue to meet the needs of our community," the store's Facebook post said. "We have 3 days to increase our revenues significantly in order to stay open."
Store owners Darcee and Sam Alderman said the state was going to pull their license to operate the small deli, chocolate shop, and gas station if they couldn't pay back some of their hefty tax debt.
"My husband and I were really trying to do this on our own, to raise the money and get out of the tax debt that we're in," Darcee Alderman says. "And when we realized that that wasn't a possibility we just kind of said, 'Well, let's at least let the community know.' Because it's not just my store or my husband's store. It's the community's store."
The Aldermans said they owe more than $90,000 in back taxes, money they were supposed to collect in sales tax and beverage deposits and hold in trust for the state. Instead, Darcee Alderman says she and her husband used the money to cover their costs, hoping to make enough in profit to make good on the loan they gave themselves.
"We take full responsibility for it," Alderman says. "But we were trying to do what was best. It's not like we went on vacations. We kept it to keep the store open. Which, you know, in hindsight, probably wasn't the smartest idea. But when you've got this many people relying on us and our kids and...so that was the choice that we made."
The state tax department finally said the store needed to either come up with at least some of the money they owed or shut down on Saturday. That's when the Aldermans realized they needed to do something quick. So they put out the request for people to come shop. And a staff member set up a Go Fund Me page that had raised $5,000 by Friday evening.
The online reaction was swift; the post was shared hundreds of times before the store reopened Thursday morning. And, in the morning, customers started streaming in.
John McNerny, a local selectboard member, said he was going to have all three meals at the store on Thursday. Slightly abnormal, but not too far off his regular level of patronage.
"Yeah, I'm a regular," McNerny admits. "I've been known to have five or six dinners a week here when things get busy."
Beyond enjoying the food, he stepped up his normal dining routine because he says the general store plays a big role in Monkton.
"My son had his first job here," he says. "They're always buying ads in the programs for the musicals at Mt. [Abraham Union High School] and supporting silent auctions at Monkton Central School and things like that. We had the power outage a couple years ago that lasted for five days; everybody was [in] this place buying food because they had no dinner. And this kind of became a hub. You know, they do a lot for the community and it would not be the same place without them."
Local political leaders have intervened with the state to see if something can be done. Addison County state senator Chris Bray reached out to the tax department.
"The state, not surprisingly," he explains, "they're not interested in shutting people down because that means the end of their revenue stream that could enable someone to pay something back. And they don't want to shut down businesses. So they are offering [the Aldermans] a plan."
The plan, according to Darcee Alderman, is that the store has to pay $20,000 - almost 25 percent of the debt by Monday, and then make regular payments and keep current with their taxes moving forward.
Monkton General Store is far from the only local independent shop struggling to stay afloat in an era of big box stores, online shopping, and changing demographics.
One of the organizations trying to preserve these traditional community spaces is the Preservation Trust of Vermont. The organization has worked with general stores and community cafes in Guilford, Putney, Barnard, North Shrewsbury, Albany, Peacham and Rupert, helping them acquire properties and work on sustainable business planning.
Preservation Trust president Paul Bruhn says one way communities can ensure the future of their general stores is to find a way for a community organization to buy the building. "If the community owns the real estate," he explains, "they really get to control their destiny and ensure that they can do everything to help that store operator succeed. One of the things they're able to do is charge a rent that is lower than a market rent."
Bruhn says this model has been working for many town stores. The Preservation Trust is not involved in the Monkton situation, but he hopes the store can survive.
"These stores play a role way beyond what goods and services they provide," he explains. "They're the places where the people in the community connect to each other. And it's a way for people of all political persuasions and levels of income to connect. And that's an important part of community. So we really need these stores."
Darcee Alderman says she's cautiously optimistic the store will hit its $20,000 goal before the end of the weekend.
Update 1:10 p.m. —
UPDATE: I dropped in on the store. The shelves are almost bare and Darcee Alderman says they’ve exceeded the $20,000 goal. Now time to restock. https://t.co/YccdnXJS2S
— Jane Lindholm (@JaneLindholm) March 9, 2019