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Country Stores, a New England Institution, Are Going Dark: Across New England, classic rural general stores are on the decline amid new competition, but some are finding ways to fight back

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2017-07-19

By Jennifer Levitz, as seen in the Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/article_email/country-stores-a-new-england-instituti...

For 203 years, the Francestown Village Store served its tiny New Hampshire town, selling everything from fresh-baked bread and live fishing bait to winter hats and groceries while offering a place where residents could gather and gossip.

But the institution, formerly known as the Long Store, closed earlier this month and will be auctioned Thursday by the bank that holds the mortgage on it.

The most recent proprietors, who owned the general store since 2013, say they struggled to make ends meet, hit by changing consumer habits such as online shopping and residents who increasingly commute out of the town of 1,600 for work and shop at large grocery stores on their way home.

“The loss of our store has definitely been a devastating time for this community,” said Jamie Pike, town administrator of Francestown, where the yellow clapboard store was the primary business on Main Street, serving as a vital meeting spot and a key resource given that the closest full supermarket is a half-hour drive away.

The scenario is becoming more common across New England, where classic rural general stores are on the decline amid new competition, especially from online shopping and chain dollar stores such as Dollar General Corp. , which has 32 locations in Vermont and 23 in New Hampshire.

Dollar General considers itself “today’s general store,” offering everyday essentials, from food to household cleaners to seasonal décor, company spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi said.

That worries town officials in New England, who say quaint village centers anchored by general stores provide their communities an old-time atmosphere not easily found elsewhere in the country—a trait crucial to the region’s big tourism industry.

“What’s at stake here is the essential character of Vermont,” said Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which has been trying to help village stores stay viable. “If we look like Anywhere, U.S.A., we will have destroyed one of our greatest economic advantages.”

General stores began thriving in rural America in the 19th century as incomes and population grew, according to the New England Historical Society. What distinguishes them from modern convenience stores is the breadth of goods offered.

Designed to provide everything rural residents might need, general stores often are packed to the gills with things ranging from tools and electrical supplies to fly swatters, newspapers, meat and other food, long underwear and maybe even a bottle of champagne.

Many offer postal services and function as a town center, where locals debate political issues or find out who in the community needs help.

“It really felt like a community hub where people gathered, and there are not very many places like that anymore,” said Maureen Troy, a local schoolteacher who would walk to the Francestown Village Store for morning coffee and homemade cinnamon-sugar doughnuts or at night to grab an ingredient for dinner.

During her recent pregnancy, Ms. Troy loved running into other regulars who would share their own parenting experiences. “In rural towns, people live far apart and it can be lonely almost if you don’t have that social interaction,” she said.

Vermont is losing three or four general stores a year, and is down to about 80 from more than 100 a decade ago, said Jack Garvin, chairman of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores. Along with more competition, aging owners who retire is another factor in the decline, he said.

Vermont Business Brokers, a commercial real estate agency in Burlington, Vt., currently has four general stores for sale versus a typical one or two stores, said Johnny Beal, a broker there.

Mr. Beal said some stores are thriving by expanding offerings to goods such as craft beer or prepared foods for people who don’t have time to cook. Successful general stores also market themselves as tourist attractions.

Rather than see these old stores close, some communities and citizens are trying to save them.

In Putney, Vt., the local historical society raised money to buy the embattled Putney General Store and in May took over the day-to-day operation there.

In Bath, N.H., Scott and Becky Mitchell jumped into an auction last year and bought the historic Brick Store, which is so old that the sides of its counter are angled to allow women in hoop skirts to get closer to the merchandise.

Mr. Mitchell, who had grown up nearby, “didn’t want the store to go to someone who was going to make condos of it,” said Ms. Mitchell. The couple, who had run a sporting-goods store and other businesses, reopened the general store on July 4.

Customers come and say, “thank you for saving it,” said Ms. Mitchell. “The town really needed it.”

Mr. Pike, the Francestown town administrator, is hopeful that the next buyer might also want to run a village store, and said residents are starting to brainstorm on ways a future store could be more successful. Ms. Troy, for instance, has been researching business models and strategies used by general stores that are doing well.

“Ultimately, we would love to see our store back,” he said.