This isn't your grandmother's general store. The first clue is
the ATM machine parked inside the front door. Then there's the
matter of the three different brands of extra-virgin olive oil for
sale, the half dozen flavors of coffee available, and the wall,
floor-to-ceiling, devoted to wine. In the café a woman works on a
crossword puzzle on her laptop, but it's a distracting environment,
full of friendly chatter and warm exclamations. It's Sunday, and a
steady stream of people has come in out of the gray morning for
coffee and news.
Hope Cannon lived in Barnard for decades, but two years ago she
moved to Florida. She returns to Barnard now only for the summers.
When she left, the Barnard General Store was a shadow of the
thriving establishment it had once been a century ago, when nearby
Silver Lake drew sporting crowds winter and summer and lumber
industries flourished. The recent owners of the store were working
hard, but the finances were not favorable, and eventually they had
The store has been reborn, however. The Barnard General Store,
which reopened on May 1, is already a model for communities
throughout Vermont of how to retain one of the institutions most
central to the sense of community.
"It was a real tragedy when the store closed," says Tom Platner,
secretary of the Barnard Community Trust, which played an essential
role in the store's reopening. "This is the heart of the community.
Without the store we're a post office and a lake."
Not that the store ever closed completely. Even after the
previous managers reluctantly posted a "CLOSED" sign on the front
door and cleared out the inventory, volunteers from the town
started coming in for three hours every day, providing a
community-based CPR that kept the enterprise from breathing its
last. Volunteers also donated muffins and sweets for the folks who
dropped in out of habit or need to visit with each other, share
news, solve problems, and enjoy an emotional or nutritional
pick-me-up. For that year the Vermont Coffee Company provided free
coffee and cups to help keep the dream alive that the store would
reopen and once again become one of its retail outlets.
While Barnard's gathering place limped along, town residents and
summer people had already launched the Barnard Community Trust. The
Preservation Trust of Vermont was standing by waiting to help.
Paul Bruhn, director of the Preservation Trust, has spent
decades preserving not just Vermont's built environment but its
spirit and soul. He defines his organization's purpose as "saving
and using important historic buildings. Our special interest is in
making vibrant downtowns and community centers."
According to Bruhn, the Preservation Trust has been working to
save the state's country stores for more than a decade, starting
with a collaborative study with the Vermont Country Store in Weston
into what makes general stores successful. The Preservation Trust
has since helped save more than a half dozen general stores in
Vermont, from Putney to Adamant, by devising new models of
financing, bringing in a consultant to advise store owners on
merchandise and sales, and involving local residents in saving
these community centers.
"There are some businesses that are essential for a downtown to
thrive, and a general store is one of those, but general stores are
very hard to run in the normal, for-profit sense," says Bruhn,
explaining both why so many country stores are struggling and why
Vermont may need new financial models to protect its general
stores. "We've tried to bring together charitable capital,
community investment, and entrepreneurship. Normally those things
The Preservation Trust had already been called in to advise the
previous owners of the Barnard General Store. Bruhn knew it was
critical for the town to acquire the building that has housed the
town's store since 1832, but they couldn't afford the price. Then,
when the Barnard Community Trust approached the owner again after
the store closed, the price had dropped by half and the owner was
supportive of the cause. Now 300-members strong, with an
experienced president who has spent his career creating land and
community trusts, the Barnard Community Trust purchased the store
building, paying $300,000 upfront that it had already raised
Local residents have been generous and involved from the
beginning, says Platner, citing the woman who paid $300 for a cup
of coffee and the man who, out of the blue, handed him a check for
$25,000. The Barnard Community Trust has since paid off another
$100,000 and has pledged to pay off the remaining $100,000 by next
May. For now the Preservation Trust accepts the donations, but that
will end once the Barnard Community Trust acquires 501c3
Bruhn also found a couple willing to restart the store from
scratch. Jillian Bradley and Joe Minerva, partners in life and
business, are fresh-faced 20-somethings who learned the store
business while working at the Richmond Market.
Mike Comeau, who manages the Richmond Market and consults pro
bono for general stores in Vermont in collaboration with the
Preservation Trust, recommended them to Bruhn. Bright, ambitious,
willing to work 12 hours per day seven days a week, and perhaps
above all, friendly and unassuming, they fell in love with the
Minerva manages the front of the store, where the olive oil and
gourmet coffee share shelf space with more traditional offerings of
cans of baked beans, flour, maple syrup, candy, milk, and a hundred
other commodities. True to its community mission, the store hosts a
jar on the checkout counter for donations to the local food shelf
and a bulletin board outside promoting fairs, used cars, church
suppers, and firewood for sale.
At the back is a deli and small café with half a dozen tables
and a long counter in front of a row of padded stools. The effect
is of a wide, gap-toothed grin. Above the counter is an enormous,
gleaming mirror that reflects the entire length of the store, and
above that is one of the old Barnard General Store signs. The
coffee urns sit on the store's original wood counter, now burnished
to a rich patina. This is Bradley territory, although that was not
the original plan.
"We looked for a chef. We could not find one," Bradley says as
she watches four skillets sizzling on the stove. "So we had a chef
come in for one day to teach me everything he could."
But if burnout is a concern for the new managers, they don't
show it. Their eyes are eager and full of game. They have six
months until they have to start paying rent, but the partnership
made possible by the Barnard Community Trust's commitment to
keeping the town's general store open and cared for will help the
store succeed where other recent owners have struggled.
"We wouldn't have done this if we didn't think it would work,"
says Platner. As for why this local cabinetmaker has donated
hundreds of hours to resuscitate the Barnard General Store and
return it to its rightful place at the center of the town's life,
he says: "Communities are run by the people who show up. I couldn't
not show up."
Nancy Price Graff is a Montpelier freelance
writer and editor.
Photos by Nancy Price Graff