The Mountain Times

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The Barnard General Store engages a new model of ownership to preserve the store as a community center

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 to close.

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 happen separately."

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 through donations.

3---Barnard -General -Store ---in State Pix4

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 (non-profit) status.

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 store.

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