Brattleboro Reformer - Tuesday August 10, 2010
Like beautiful foliage, maple syrup, hard winters and spacious farm lands, general stores have been a staple of the New England landscape for more than a century.
Once a central meeting place for small-town communities, these stores were the lifeblood for families, offering a little bit of everything needed to get through everyday life. These days most may consider them a relic of days gone by, an outdated link to the past, if you will. Perhaps that's true in urban centers, but here in Vermont, some of these stores are still a meeting center for the community, a place to gather and discuss the day, get a drink, a snack and maybe even the daily paper.
Consider this: When the Putney General Store first burned down on May 3, 2008, many in town lost their access to DVD rentals, some lost a favorite lunch counter, but a group calling itself The Viagra Club lost a meeting place.
"We'd come down in any weather, mainly for the camaraderie," said John Caldwell, who was organizing impromptu Friday morning gatherings in the shadow of the shuttered general store when he talked to the Reformer in June 2008. "No one wants to lose this."
For years, decades for some, the day would begin with a half-hour or so of weak coffee and strong opinions. The group discussed everything from local politics to road conditions, the sports world to town residents, with no topic off limits.
The group met that summer, in front of the General Store's shell, waiting for a new place to open for them to gather in and talk.
When we covered the group a little over two years ago, we also talked with Larry Ingersol, who had been selling health and beauty aids for almost four decades. He said that he had stopped at dozens of stores between New Jersey and Maine in the course of his week, but only had a regular morning beverage stop in Putney.
"It's the people here. This has got to be the friendliest place in the world," he said.
There's the key. As technological advances inadvertently help people build walls around themselves -- with cell phones, texting, e-mails and so on eliminating the need for direct human contact -- there's still something to be said for everyday human interaction. There's something about taking a couple of minutes out of a busy day to stop the car, order a coffee and have a conversation with another human being, be they friend or stranger -- about anything that might be going on in the world. Just to slow down for a moment. It's something that can't be duplicated on a Blackberry or at a drive-through window.
Since that story on the General Store ran, the community pulled together to rebuild, only to see the store once again go up in flames in November 2009. Now, the Putney Historic Society is hopeful to have the store back up and running by this fall or winter.
On a similar note, after more than a year of negotiations, the local nonprofit group Friends of Algiers was able to close a deal last week to purchase the Guilford Country Store. This is great news for the town, as well as shop owner Patricia Good who wanted to keep the shop locally owned and operated as opposed to selling to a national chain.
The store, located near the corner of Route 5 and Guilford Center Road, has remained a focus point in the village since 1817. Prior to becoming Guilford's only store, the building served as a tavern, hotel, dance hall and meeting place. Now, Friends of Algiers, an organization which is working to preserve the historic qualities of Guilford's downtown village (Algiers), is hoping to have this piece of history once again open by the end of the year, and townspeople and passers-through will once again have a place to gather, grab a couple of needed necessities or not-so-necessities, and make a human connection or two.
Back when we were covering the first Putney General Store fire, we also talked to John Babbitt, who lived most of his 80 years within a 10-mile radius of the store. He could remember the delivery man, in his horse and buggy, making the run with provisions on dirt roads from Dummerston through Putney and on up into Westminster.
"It goes back that far," Babbitt told us in 2008. "There's a lot of history here. We'd hate to see it disappear."