When the townspeople of Craftsbury, Vermont, hang out at the general store, the line blurs between “store” and “story,” a scenario little changed since America’s first country store opened in Adamsville, Rhode Island, in 1788. Little more than a century has passed since folks hitched horses off the porch and rambled into the Craftsbury General Store […]
By Julia Shipley
Sep 24 2015
Lunchtime at the Craftsbury General Store: Timber-frame builders Makaio Maher and Brad Kennison kick back with Meg Gibson of Pete’s Greens.Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson
When the townspeople of Craftsbury, Vermont, hang out at the general store, the line blurs between “store” and “story,” a scenario little changed since America’s first country store opened in Adamsville, Rhode Island, in 1788.
Little more than a century has passed since folks hitched horses off the porch and rambled into the Craftsbury General Store to pick up lamp wicks, a pinch of snuff, and perhaps a new cowhide whip. But scarcely 20 minutes have passed since Bruce Urie, whose ancestry goes back to some of the town’s first settlers, stopped into the store for two handy items still available since the beginning: a newspaper and a hunk of cheese. True, Bruce rode in via his Subaru Legacy, as opposed to dismounting from his best bay mare, but he crossed the exact same threshold—where the green paint is scuffed to bare wood—as his ancestors did at the store’s opening, circa 1855–1860, just before the dawn of the Lincoln administration.
This old store with a tiny bit of everything serves as the keystone of Craftsbury’s civic life. The town, founded in 1781, is a swerve off the beaten track, but boasts nice libraries, pretty churches, a pint-size college, and a handsome community lawn called “the Common.” Home to about 1,000 people (down from an all-time high of 1,400 back in the mid-1800s), the village is either an arduous horseback ride or a 30-minute car drive to the nearest major grocery store, movie theatre, or restaurant. Hence the General Store stands in for all these things—the original fulfillment center—where you can dash over to pick up a carton of eggs, a DVD, and a pulled-pork pizza. And if you park yourself over by the coffeepot on any given morning, you’re sure to witness an unofficial roll call, as in comes Barb from the Academy, followed by Paula who works at the Flower Shop, then Sarah, who runs the Art House, then Jeremiah from the Jones farm, then Sam, our district representative in the state legislature, then Rick, who teaches agriculture at the college, then Norma, who’s delivering the news-papers … taking cup after cup.
Here, a talented eavesdropper can learn who bought the inn, what the crew at Pete’s Greens is harvesting, where your neighbor’s daughter has been accepted to college, when the Fire Department is having its BBQ, and why the guy you buy fenceposts from has decided to run for governor—all illustrating the kinship of “store” and “story.” Furthermore, over the course of a day, customers take part in what I call the “ecology of watchfulness,” an upshot of busybody-ism, as Emily asks after Margie’s health, and then Margie asks about my chickens, and then I query Stuart about his plant nursery, and Stuart asks Emily about her renovation plans. “Some former elected official named Vance who currently lives in Derby forgot his earmuffs,” reads an entry in the store’s staff journal. “Never mind. He came back.”
Twenty years ago, Andy Humphrey, grandson of the store’s owners from 1972 to 1995, sought to understand the meaning of the store for its citizenry. The then-16-year-old spent a weekend at the store, keeping track of who came in and what they bought.
Over a weekend in March, he counted 83 customers “of all shapes and sizes,” and discovered their most common purchases were newspapers, milk, and candy. But he also counted the chips, cheese, bananas, ice cream, minced clams, and frozen apple turnovers that were rung up at the register, as well as sandpaper, paint rollers, videos, bags of ice—all prompting Andy to comment that “most people seemed to be there for only a few specific items or simply something to do to pass the time,” and that his grandparents had known almost every person who came in by name.
Yet what interested Andy most was the “talk of the town.” A day or two before, a local house had burned down and “two-thirds of everyone who came in had something to say about the fire.”
Two decades later, everything the former proprietors’ grandson observed is ongoing, and the store is like a classic play with new actors. Its current owner, Emily Maclure, a 34-year-old Vermont native, plays the lead, and with her best supporting staff, Rene Orzolek and Marie Royer, they greet customers by name as they stop in: 83, 90, sometimes 200 shoppers a day, to pick up news-papers, milk, and candy. This past March, when another local house burned to the ground, instantaneously the store’s counter sported a plastic jug that began greening up with 1s, 5s, and 20s for the neighbor left with nothing but the clothes on his back.
Although Emily doesn’t carry hardware supplies, she’ll stock minced clams and frozen apple turnovers upon request. The General Store receives 15 big truck orders a week, in addition to 15 little deliveries (local bread, local milk, local eggs, and so on), and anyone perusing the inventory is bound to enjoy these rich juxtapositions, which in many ways mirror the mix of folks who shuffle, swagger, or stride through the door. The soda-cap earrings made by a grade-schooler dangle next to a display of cigars, which are next to the baseball bats signed by our local retired Red Sox/Expos pitcher. Shelves abound with organic Vermont-made baby food and Duncan Hines cake mix.
And it all has a story behind it: from the flannel shirt draped on a chair (left by the Sterling College work crew who volunteered to wash windows) to the heating vent decorated with a mural of local sights (like Pete’s red truck and Mark’s yellow house); from the new picnic table (came from Emily’s brother) to even the newest beer Emily is stocking.
The store’s 12th proprietor in 150 years decided to carry it just because of its name, a name that summarizes the feeling of this provident place: “A Tiny Beautiful Something.”