- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

PERU, Vt. - From his spot behind the cash register, David Pinder lets his eyes sweep across his country store: to the wines, barbecue supplies, bread, milk, soft drinks, sandwiches, and freshly brewed coffee. A table and two chairs occupy center stage for the regulars who enjoy going a few rounds on any hot topic: property taxes, development, the gubernatorial election.

This is what makes the Bromley Market a typical Vermont country store. It doesn’t generate the revenue of a 7-Eleven or Jiffy Mart, but it’s a place where folks feel comfortable discussing the social or political issues of the day.

“Can you hang out and talk at the 7-Eleven?” Mr. Pinder asked. “No, because you’ll get charged with loitering.”

The distinction is a big one for Mr. Pinder and other store owners who don’t want to see their traditional businesses big-footed by convenience stores. But there may be nothing they can do to stop the advancing tide.

“We’re an endangered species, I’d have to say. And I think one of our biggest threats comes from these chain minimarts,” said John Rehlen, owner of a Castleton store and a member of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, which raises money to keep country stores open.

Several Vermont communities have seen their country stores go out of business over the last 10 or 15 years: Shrewsbury, Tunbridge, Wallingford, Middletown Springs and Ferrisburgh are but a few. The stores either closed down or shut down temporarily only to reopen as something else — a gift shop, maybe, or a pizzeria. One is now a car dealership.

Bromley Market is in many ways typical of the institutions the alliance is trying to save. Although not located in a majestic old building with tall ceilings and creaking wooden floors — it started out as a roadside shack in the 1930s — the store represents what customers want: a place to drink their coffee, read the paper and hold forth on any topic.

Country stores in North Carolina are facing issues similar to those in Vermont, said Gail Booker, who owns Patterson’s Mill Country Store in Chapel Hill. Her store, which sells only antiques, memorabilia and prepared food such as jam and candy, cannot compare to the all-purpose country stores in Vermont, and she can’t think of many in her state that can.

“In the mountains of North Carolina, you probably can still find a country store that has the gas and the food,” said Miss Booker. “I know you could 10 years ago. I’m not so sure about now. In the areas that I go to, the convenience chains have probably put them out of business.”

Sula Country Store, which Marge Kingsbury operates with her sister and the best thing going in Sula, Mont., has defied the odds and hung in there for 70 years. The store sells groceries, gas and souvenirs and is about 50 miles south of Missoula, the largest city in the area, with fewer than 60,000 residents.

Geography — the area is rural and mountainous — may partly account for its longevity. Miss Kingsbury said she doubts a convenience store would find it worthwhile to open nearby.

“We’re kind of in the boonies,” said Miss Kingsbury, who operates a campground behind the store. “We don’t have anything to worry about right now.”

But no one can say that won’t change as developers eye the quiet rural landscape and respond to the public’s increasing appetite for more space. Ravalli County is expected to lead Montana in growth over the next 25 years, ballooning by almost 57 percent to 60,000 residents, according to the latest population forecast.

“With or without development, the people are coming,” said Vinda Milless, a real-estate agent in nearby Hamilton. “That’s why there’s a demand for more homes.”

And that means more services.

Country stores often are family-owned, and the owner is usually the person at the cash register, who lives nearby and knows the customers. Beyond the social contact they provide, they are important in other ways to their communities.

“People would call us if the fire alarm went off, or an ambulance went down the road, to see what was happening,” said Jack Perry, who ran Perry’s Country Market in Wallingford, Vt., until last November. “It was basically a place to get information.”

Fred Thurlow had been stopping by Perry’s regularly since the 1950s for his double dose of morning coffee and conversation. “Just a couple of chairs, a cup of coffee … it was an enjoyable time,” he said. “It was an important part of town.”

If Mr. Perry’s declining health nudged him to consider closing, a two-month-long road-construction project that ate up the available parking spaces sealed the store’s fate.

Mr. Thurlow was sad to see it go. Nothing can replace it, he said.

“Gas stations have merchandise, but this was a store that carried a pretty general line of stuff,” he said. “You could really live out of that store.”

But all the news isn’t bad for these communities.

Even if the big chains step in, they, too, can become part of the community, said Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers Association, a trade group for chain stores, supermarkets and country stores.

A lot of it depends on the individual store manager,” Mr. Harrison said. “People like to shop where they feel comfortable.”

To help stores like Mr. Pinder’s, the Vermont alliance is working on several promotion projects, one of which is a line of Vermont-made specialty foods just for its 50 or so members.

“We want our name out there so people will remember, ‘This was bought in a Vermont store, and it’s a Vermont product.’ It’s branding,” said Jayne Nold-Laurendeau, who chairs the alliance and sold her Northfield store this year after almost two decades.

As for Mr. Pinder, a veteran of the restaurant business, although Bromley Market cannot match the purchasing power of a chain, he finds a bonus in not having to answer to anyone.

“It is tough going up against the Mobils and the Jiffy Marts and 7-Elevens and things like that,” he said. “But it’s good to be the underdog, to be the independent, to run your business as you see fit. It’s good not being part of corporate America.”

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