The general store is the heart of many small Vermont towns, but the rise of online shopping and big box stores has made it hard for some more traditional stores to stay open.
Some Vermont towns are turning to public-private partnerships to keep their general stores viable. In one Northeast Kingdom town they’re counting on that model to get their store back.
There’s a lot to be had at the Craftsbury General Store, according to co-owner and chef Kit Basom.
"In addition to amazing personalities and conversation with your neighbors, we have so many things," Basom said. "We have a wonderful wine selection, we have some bulk goods and snacks galore, and a deli that’s stocked with ready to grab-and-go salads and sandwiches and fresh pizzas ..."
The list goes on.
Head north on Route 14 from Craftsbury and the next town you come to is Albany, home of about 950 people. A series of white clapboard buildings are clustered in the village: houses, a town hall, town clerk’s office, fire station and elementary school.
There’s also a boarded-up brick building that once was the Albany General Store.
The store closed six years ago, after a fire that started in a pizza oven destroyed the building. There hasn’t been a store, or any other village businesses, since — but now there’s a group of people working to change that.
Hannah Pearce is board president of a group called the Albany Community Trust, which formed to revive the store. Pearce grew up in Albany. She went away for about eight years, but decided to come back and buy into the family farm.
"I came for a long visit, and the visit just kept on getting longer," Pearce said. "And the longer I’ve been here, from the first month on, the less I could imagine living anywhere else."
But Pearce said Albany has changed since she was a kid.
"In some ways the area has declined in opportunity," said Pearce. "In other ways opportunity and energy is building."
The energy to bring a store back to town has been ramping up for over a year now. In that time the Albany Community Trust has raised nearly $400,000 in donations and grants. The trust has purchased the old store and a neighboring vacant lot which will be used for parking, septic, and outdoor events.
Fundraisers have come in many forms – a plant sale and variety show, community dinners, road races and a hugely successful pie auction. According to Pearce and board secretary Larry Bohen, 30 pies netted almost $4,000.
"The least expensive pie was $40, and the most expensive was $225," Bohen said.
Pearce added: "Technically, there was a $25, like, Hostess pie that was put on the table as a joke, but I auctioned that off."
The fundraising efforts are ongoing; Pearce said they have about $120,000 to go.
The goal is to have all the renovation work done this construction season, including adding on a community room. Bohen said the room will also serve as a café for the store.
"That's where people can go and meet and have their coffees and that sort of thing," he said.
It's the type of space that Paul Bruhn, of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, calls a "third place."
"We have the places where we go to work, we have the places where we live, and then we have these third places where we connect with people in the community," Bruhn said. "And that’s the role the village stores play."
The Preservation Trust of Vermont is helping with the Albany project, just as it’s helped with funding and advice for similar projects in places such as Putney, Guilford and Barnard.
A local group like the Albany Community Trust purchases the property and creates a turnkey store. Then they lease the property to someone who will run the store. Bruhn said this model helps the business owner, who doesn’t have to pay upfront costs for the building, and it’s also beneficial for the larger community.
"It helps ensure that the community can control its own destiny and that they won’t wake up some day and have the store sold and used for some other purpose," he explained.
But Bruhn admits running a general store is a challenging business. There's no guarantee this model will succeed long-term.
"There's a reason why these stores struggle these days," he said. "They're a little bit like running a dairy farm. It's a 24/7 – if you're running a store, you need to be there pretty much all the time."
Bruhn added that even when you're not at the store, you're constantly thinking about ways to make it profitable.
In Albany, they believe they've found the perfect partners to run the shop: a team of three women – Kit Basom and her partners – who have had some success down the road at the Craftbury General Store. They hope to open up shop in Albany around the end of the year.