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A popular general store asked its customers to work part time. They came through.

Helped wanted sign on a store window. In the corner, you can see bottles of oil for sale.
Lexi Krupp
/
VPR
Like nearly every business in town, Dan & Whit's General Store hadn't been able to hire enough staff. Sometimes three people would be working a shift instead of eight or more. A recent surge of part-time hires from the community has helped.

It started with an email — a plea, really — for staffing help, from a man named Dan Fraser. He runs a general store in Norwich called Dan and Whit’s.

This is how Betsy Maislen remembers it: “You want to do yoga? Come into Dan and Whit’s. Breath. Grab a can of peas, put it on the shelf. Reach, stretch, bend down, breathe. Do it again.”

“'It was funny, it was sad and it was desperate,' is what I told him,” she said. “So how could I not respond?”

Maislen was happy to help. She’s been going to Dan and Whit’s for decades — she can't imagine her town without the store. She’s retired, after a long career as a nurse practitioner, so she got in touch.

“I basically told him, I will do any job that you need me to do,” she said. “I asked him, ‘What do you need most?’ He said, ‘I really need cashiers.’ I said, ‘train me how to do it, I can do that.’”

Maislen is one of more than a dozen people hired in the past month, working part time. Many, like her, are retired. Some have other full-time jobs and young kids. None are your traditional employees.

“We are able to pick our own hours,” said Dianne Miller. “We’re able to decide how many hours we want to work, when we want to work, what we want to do. So it's not really a job.”

Miller is another new recruit. She’s helping to organize inventory, like putting out Christmas lights and wrapping paper.

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It’s sort of a natural fit for her. Once, when she was shopping, she asked Fraser, who owns the store with his brothers, if she could organize the tea station.

“It’s always kind of a little bit helter skelter there,” she said. “So he said, 'Just open up any time — a package — and put out the tea that you like.' So I’ve been doing that for years.”

Red letters spell out Dan & Whit's over the storefront, with a string of lights dangling in front.
Lexi Krupp
/
VPR
The general store's motto is, "if we don't have it, you don't need it!"

Another new employee is Janet Eller. She lives two blocks away. She’s happily retired at 77. But now, she comes in twice a week in the morning to make stews and prepare breakfast sandwiches before the 7 a.m. rush. She said it’s hard work.

“It's a fast moving thing because you're working with food. My biggest challenge is to get those foolish eggs to crack without having the shell fall in there,” she said. “I got to get better at that.”

Honestly, Eller is not sure how long she can keep at it. After a morning shift, she’s exhausted. “I walk home and collapse.” she said.

All of these women have said they’re not working for the money. They’re not even keeping their salaries. They plan to donate them to local nonprofits. Instead, they’re here because of what this place means to the town.

“That general store is the heart of this community,” Maislen said. “It’s like a beehive. And all the bees are going in and out all the time. You need something? You can just pop into Dan and Whit’s. They have everything.”

At the center of the hive is an office with stacks of paper and receipts covering every surface. There’s a stash of dog bones in the corner and a fly swatter hanging on the wall. It’s where you’ll usually find Dan Fraser.

He’s the grandson of the original Dan of Dan and Whit’s. He explained that this all started because, like nearly every business in town, they didn’t have enough staff.

Sometimes three people would be working when they would normally have eight or more during a shift. Customers were complaining about long lines at the cash register. The lines bothered Fraser too.

He had the idea to ask if anyone would be willing to work a shift — about six hours a week — broken down in any way that fit their schedule.

“I thought, 'Well, let's throw it out there and see,'” he said. “If everyone does that little piece, then together those pieces add up to a full person or a couple people that will help us get us through this.”

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A man holds a receipt at his cluttered desk. Stacks of paper cover every surface.
Lexi Krupp
/
VPR
Dan Fraser is the grandson of the original 'Dan' of Dan and Whit’s. He leaves a personalized note for each employee every day he's at the store.

This is not the fix for the country’s labor shortage, but for now, at Dan and Whit’s, it’s been a big help.

“Surprisingly enough, we had a lot of response, which was great,” Fraser said.

On a recent Saturday, nearly every person working at the store was new. They wouldn’t have had a cashier otherwise.

There have been surprises for the new employees, too.

After her first shift a few weeks ago, Maislen found a little note wrapped around her timecard. It was typed up, printed on a thin strip of paper, from Fraser.

“Here’s what he writes: 'Besty, Saturday - Thanks for coming in for training today. It’s wonderful to have you here joining the team. You’re a quick learner and easily mastered all the tasks. Great job with customers, too. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks, Dan.'"

At the end of each of her shifts, she gets one of these notes. So does every employee — every day besides Tuesdays, Fraser’s day off.

That’s enough to keep her coming to work for as long as the store needs.

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp @KruppLexi.

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