When the owners of the Brookline General Store decided to close in April 2017, loyal patrons bemoaned the loss of their local hang-out. The store specialized in purveying local crafts and meat, boasted a loyal pizza fan base, and offered small town activities like community puzzles. But after a few short years, the owners wished for a more relaxing retirement.
The closing of a general store disrupts the nerve center for almost every small town in New Hampshire. Here, teenagers can get their first job and retirees can get their last. You can pick up a sandwich, birthday card, Squamscot soda, and the skinny on Shirley’s broken hip.
So what happens when your town’s general store closes? Brookline is far from the only recent closure: in the past few years, stores in Hill, Francestown, Grafton, West Canaan, Danbury, Bath, Sandwich, and Cornish have closed. Some have since re-opened, others plan to re-open, but several remain plagued by weak markets and/or costly, but necessary, upgrades.
These closures reveal a hard truth about general stores in today’s world. It’s a tough life for store clerks and owners. Gas no longer reliably brings people into the store, where profit margins are higher. Modernizing equipment in the kitchen or at the pumps can be prohibitively expensive. Help is hard to find – and keep.
But stores can and do re-open, and that’s the better story. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned from our conversations and travels throughout New Hampshire about today’s general stores:
New Models of Ownership
When Acworth residents learned that their sole store was heading for the open market in 2000, the historical society tried something radical. They bought it. Their thinking was not to make it a museum, but to own and operate the business which had been in South Acworth since 1865. With the help of an LCHIP grant and a mortgage, the historical society developed a novel model of ownership: a non-profit owned general store.
“We knew what atmosphere we wanted to create, but really…we were winging it,” said Kathi Bradt, one of the store’s champions.
At first, their model relied on volunteer labor. When that didn’t work, they found a tenant to lease the space and operate the store starting in 2002. In 2007, the selectboard agreed to waive property taxes, which allows the historical society to subsidize the rent to encourage the storekeeper to invest in the business. The South Acworth Village Store now offers a community garden, a beehive oven for pizzas in the summer, and six paid staff (making it the third largest employer in town). It takes annual fundraising to keep the business afloat, even with rental income from the post office and an upstairs apartment, but townspeople recognize its value to the town’s social and economic life.
South Acworth’s model, sometimes known as a Community Supported Enterprise or CSE, also exists in Canterbury, Harrisville, Hooksett, Freedom, Lancaster, Eaton, and soon, Francestown. Each store fits their model to the community they serve. Some stores are owned and managed by the nonprofit; others are owned by the nonprofit but leased to a separate private or nonprofit entity; and some, like Freedom and the Root Seller in Lancaster, are nonprofits located in a privately-owned building. Some of the stores sell lottery tickets, beer, cigarettes, and ready-to-go meals. Others pick and choose based on profit margins, the organization’s values, and space limitations.
RSA 79-G was passed in 2013 to benefit community-owned stores located in historic buildings. If your building is 100 years or older, listed on the State or National Register of Historic Places, owned by a nonprofit, historically and presently used as a store, smaller than 3,000 square feet of finished space, and your town has passed the measure at town meeting, the building and the land directly under it are eligible for re-appraisal at no more than 10% of its market value.
To date, only one store in the state is enrolled in the program: Robie’s in Hooksett.
CSEs in New Hampshire share a few similarities:
-Acworth, Harrisville, Canterbury, and Eaton rent space to the US Postal Service for post offices. (Hebron did this, too.)
-Nearly every CSE includes apartments that provide stable monthly income.
-None of the CSEs in NH currently have gas pumps.
-In most instances, CSEs work best in slightly isolated towns, where the general store serves a radius of 10+ miles.
In Canterbury and Hebron, citizens rallied and formed an LLC to purchase their stores. Local investors then purchased shares of the business, which gave them voices at the annual shareholder’s meeting. In the case of Hebron, this model worked for over a decade. “But eventually, the shareholders got tired of fixing frozen pipes at 1am,” recalls Mike Lemieux. When one of the shareholders offered to buy back the shares and return the store to private ownership, the shareholders agreed to sell.
“We consider our experiment a success. We kept the store open for many years and proved its commercial viability to the next owner,” says Lemieux.
Canterbury remains owned by the LLC and continues to field interested calls from around the country. “It’s been a very good model for us,” says Lisa Carlson, one of the masterminds behind the community project. “When we need electrical work or sill repair, the shareholders respond. We didn’t buy stocks to make money, we did it to keep the heart of our community alive.”
Traditional Models, New Ideas
Most general stores in New Hampshire are still owned by families and individuals who enjoy the pace of running a small town general store. As always, these stores pride themselves on diversity of products. Just take a look at Wentworth Location’s Mount Dustan’s Country Store, where you can get your moose processed and some ice cream.
Danbury Country Store was most recently voted best in New Hampshire by WMUR. The yellow building stands at the corner of Route 4 and 104 in a town famous for its haunt, “Hippie Hill,” a modest rise between the road and the railroad bed that still attracts motorcyclists, beer guzzlers, and horseshoe players.
When the Danbury Country Store came up for sale in 2013, siblings Jim Phelps and Audrey Pellegrino decided to buy it and recreate the atmosphere it had lost after decades of renovations. Specifically, they wanted to see it as it was when their parents operated the exact same store in the 1960s and ‘70s. Nearly fifty years later, they knew the store would have to cater to tourists, bicyclists on the nearby Northern Rail Trail, and the everyday customer. Says Pellegrino, “Tourists help you to expand and grow but the locals keep you in business.”
The store includes a deli counter where they make 90% of their food and offer to-go dinners, space for local goods like whoopie pies and the historical society calendars, and plenty of seating for sandwich eaters. Store owners in North Sutton, Westmoreland, and Tamworth agree: good eating, good atmosphere, and great customer service make a small town store more successful.
The diversity of products can contribute to the chaos, but according to Danbury’s Pellegrino, her customers keep her going. “I love being part of the community, helping people to find solutions and to hopefully make someone leave in a happier mood than when they entered. The 70-100 hours a week that I work are just a bonus.”
Have a favorite general store? Is your community facing a store closure? Let us know!