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The Calais Community Saves Its 'Center Of Everything'

A mail room next to a deer head and a freezer.
Erica Heilman
/
VPR
The Maple Corner Store is, according to its former owners, "the center of everything." When the store went up for sale, the community decided to buy its gathering place, and it is now owned by close to 200 shareholders.

Artie and Nancy Toulis have run the Maple Corner Store in Calais since 2007, and now, they’re getting done. It’s the only store for 10 miles. It’s also the post office and the place where all the kids get their first jobs, and it’s where children have been getting on the bus for as long as anyone can remember.

During their tenure, Artie and Nancy ripped down a shed in the back of the store and added the Whammy Bar, which became the coolest music venue the size of a living room in the entire state. 

So what does a general store mean to a small rural town? 

“It’s everything – I mean, it makes the community,” Nancy said. “It’s where people get together and hand off a book that they want to share with somebody. And they get their mail here. It’s just the gathering place.”

"It's everything – I mean, it makes the community." – Nancy Toulis, Maple Corner Store

Artie said the store is the “center of everything”: Where people buy stuff and where they call to ask, “How are the roads?”

“Things that don’t have anything to do with us, you know, ‘Have you seen a brown dog?’” Artie said. “So we’re sort of the home base for information a lot of times. You talk about when we lose people. Quite often that day, there seems to be a gathering at the store. People come and they’re like, ‘OK, what can we do for the family?’ Plans are arranged and things happen here because there’s the space out front and you know people are going to be stopping by.”

Neighbor Jamie Moorby remembered when there was four- or five-day power outage last fall.

More from VPR – Why Does Vermont Have So Many Dollar Generals?

“This was the place people came and shared information. You know, ‘Is so-and-so up on Dugar Brook Road OK? Has anyone talked to them?’” Jamie said. “I sort of joke that I don’t come in here if I’m running late to wherever I’m going. I only come in if I have 15 minutes to kill, because I inevitably run into three people who want to ask me a question about the community center, or I’ll be driving by and I’ll see someone’s car in the parking lot, and ‘Oh I should stop! I wanna ask that person something!’”

According to Artie, they’ve always said the most thing in the store isn’t the stuff for sale.

But general stores in Vermont are struggling. Big stores in bigger towns can sell things cheaper. Prices go up, taxes go up, electricity goes up. And general store owners have to work 60-hour weeks to break even. A lot of these stores are closing.  

"About two years ago, a number of us were sitting around the counter of the store having our morning muffin, and saying, 'Who's going to save the store? We can't let this store go the way of so many general stores in Vermont. Who's going to buy it? Who's going to save this institution?'" – Jamie Moorby, Calais

But the Maple Corner Store is not closing. Jamie Moorby said the community came up with a novel solution to keep their store after it’d been up for sale for three years with no buyers coming forward.

“About two years ago, a number of us were sitting around the counter of the store having our morning muffin, and saying, ‘Who’s going to save the store? We can’t let this store go the way of so many general stores in Vermont. Who’s going to buy it? Who’s going to save this institution?’” Jamie said. “Nobody’s going to save us. We have to save ourselves. We have to come together as a community and make it happen.”

And they did. A group of community members mobilized an effort to buy the store and encourage investment from people in the area.  

More from VPR – NEK Community Rallies To Bring Back Albany General Store

“So the old model of mom and pop stores, where it’s one person or one couple running the store, just doesn’t work in the modern economic realities of Amazon and online shopping,” Jamie said. “Because to do that … you have to have the store be your entire world.”

And the problem is that those kinds of places have a lot of debt, and it’s hard to get ahead.

“We have come up with a plan to eliminate all debt – we have raised all the funds we need to buy and operate the business,” Jamie said. “So it won’t be a treadmill. It will be a group of people sharing all the responsibility, and the economics of it look way better than it would as a single proprietor.”

At this point, Jamie said there are 180 shareholders.  

“When you’re a private owner of a business, you can’t say, ‘Hey town! Come paint! Come work on the building! Offer this skill!’”

"When you're a community institution with that many shareholders, you can call on your shareholders." – Jamie Moorby, Calais

But:

“When you’re a community institution with that many shareholders, you can call on your shareholders,” Jamie said. “So instead of having one or two minds running the whole thing, you have almost 200 minds shaping what the future’s going to look like, which just allows for so much creativity and flexibility and promise moving forward.” 

On Artie and Nancy’s last night as proprietors of the store, the Whammy Bar was packed. And like any self-respecting musician, Artie wanted to go out on “Free Bird.”   

You can still get your milk and eggs in Maple Corner. You can pick up your mail, talk to your neighbors, and hear a great band in a room the size of your living room.

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