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Underhill Rallies To Save Its General Store

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The Underhill Country Store, shown here in June, 2010, will be under cooperative ownership starting in January. Community members rallied to ensure the general store stayed open, after the current owners failed to find a traditional buyer.

Once again a group of local citizens is stepping in to save a Vermont general store in danger of closing. This time the effort is focused on giving people a chance to become part owners. 

Peter and Nancy Davis, the current owners of the Underhill Country Store, have been running it for about four and a half years.

They wanted to retire, but after 10 months of trying, couldn’t find a buyer. So in early December they announced they would close the 130-year-old establishment.

In a single week, local organizers raised $50,000 to keep it open – three times their initial goal.  

Those who donated purchased membership shares in a newly formed cooperative that is buying the store’s assets and inventory.

Over the next year the co-op hopes to raise $300,000 through sales of shares to acquire the property. 

In the coming weeks, it will hire someone to run the store and officially take over the operation from the Davises in mid-January.

Kyle Clark helped coalesce the desire to preserve the store around the idea of a cooperative.

Clark says the Underhill Country Store is currently only marginally successful as a business.

"Eighty percent of the people say, 'I want [the store] there because I want to be proud of the center of my town. I want the culture there.'" — Kyle Clark

“To make it commercially viable, it needs to add about 20 percent to its topline, which is a feasible task if we add some things like bulk buying and a café and some other think that the co-op really wants,” he says.

A supermarket chain is planning to build a store nearby, but Clark believes the cultural appeal of the country store is the key to its success even in the face of the increased competition.

“If we look at the commitments people have made to fund the cooperative, I would say roughly 20 percent of the people ... ask the question, ‘What’s my financial return?’" says Clark. "Eighty percent of the people say, ‘I want that there because I want to be proud of the center of my town. I want the culture there.'"  

“If we can continue that momentum into why you want to shop at the store, then we have a very different reason for people to come to the store.”

Clark says the Vermont Employee Ownership Center helped the group navigate the legal ins and outs of establishing a cooperative. 

They also received advice from Preservation Trust of Vermont which has helped a number of communities save their local general stores.

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