Country Stores

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(HOST) Traveling around New England as he does for both business and pleasure, commentator Willem Lange has to admit that he’s developed a "thing" for country stores.

(LANGE) Most small New England villages have country stores – one apiece, and the center of the village’s life. In the rare instance of two stores, the more prosperous usually has the local post office in the back of the store.

It’s hard to imagine anybody who doesn’t love country stores. They’re rarely elegant; just keeping store takes so many hours there’s little time left for keeping up the place. So the edges of the porch are often worn away in little v-shaped cracks; the front door may stick; and inside, the softwood floor often has been worn away, leaving the old nail heads sticking up and shiny. But the aromas – of Bag Balm, kerosene, of chili cooking behind the meat counter – are incomparable.

You can tell a lot about a village by its store. In some, you get greeted when you walk in as a stranger; in others, you get looked at. In some, you can get a conversation going by commenting on somebody’s Red Sox or Yankees cap; in others, you feel that as a stranger, you have no status for such intimacy. When that happens, I follow Saint Paul’s advice, and shake the dust of that village (or in New England, the mud) from my feet.

The late Professor Al Foley, a famous Vermont storyteller, once could not get a conversation going with a bunch of old-timers on the porch of the Barnet country store. Finally he said, "You fellas don’t talk much, do you?"

"No," was the response. "We don’t believe in talkin,’ ‘less we can improve on the silence." The professor never returned to that store, but he took away a story.

A country store ought to offer: prepared food and sandwiches for people on the run; ordinary groceries, canned food, and bread; Scotch tape, clothes pins, and spiral notebooks; gas and kerosene pumps; hunting and fishing licenses; notions for tourists; greeting cards; and coffee early in the morning at a reasonable price. (Starbucks would wither out here. Can you imagine a logger or a turkey hunter ordering a latté?) Loss leaders like low-priced coffee often lead occasional customers to become steady patrons.

Most of all, the country store needs a proprietor who enjoys people: who derives his energy from hundreds of customers, each with his unique concerns, information, and stories. From the predawn guys in muddy pickups, to early-rising retirees coming in for the Times, to kids waiting for the school bus, to parents on the way home from work, the storekeeper, like the pastor or bartender, knows them all. And if he’s good, he makes each one feel as though he’s the store’s most important customer.

The cracker barrel and potbellied stove may be gone, and improved mobility may threaten the old-fashioned store. It may be harder every year to find young people willing to put in the long hours necessary to make a living at it. Still, I never spy a country store coming up but I feel like a traveler in the desert spotting an oasis in the distance.

This is Willem Lange up in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

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