Vermont Country Stores Form Alliance

Date: 1 Mar 2001 | posted in: Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Vermont is home to more than 250 country stores, many of which have been the center of their communities for well over a century. Country stores are as varied and unique as the towns they serve. Most are small, cozy, locally owned and operated, and housed in historic buildings. Their offerings include staple products like newspapers and bread, as well as goods geared to the local market, such as fishing lures or gourmet cheeses. Their owners tend to be deeply involved in local affairs and the stores themselves often function as the town’s main gathering place and political center. "Country stores have a lot to do with making the community feel like a real community," says Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

But Vermont’s country stores are under siege. Many have already closed and most of those that remain are struggling to stay open. They are facing heightened competition from chain convenience stores, like Cumberland Farms and Jiffy Mart, difficulties with suppliers, costly repairs on older buildings, and a lack of resources for advertising and marketing.

Early last year, a group of store owners began exploring the idea of a creating an alliance that would enable country stores to work together to solve mutual problems. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) hosted an initial meeting and provided the support necessary to get a steering committee off the ground.

Since then, the Alliance has secured funding from the Vermont Community Foundation, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, and the Vermont Country Store, an established and widely known company. The Vermont Grocers Association has provided in-kind support.

With the help of a consultant, the steering committee agreed on an organizational structure and conducted a survey of country stores last fall to identify common challenges and gage interest in the Alliance. Out of 107 surveys, 70 responded and most favored the idea.

"We knew then that we were on to something," says Jay Hathaway, who owns Peltier’s Market in Dorset and has provided much of the Alliance’s initial leadership.

Over the next few months, the Alliance will begin recruiting members and prioritizing goals. The group will focus primarily on cooperative marketing and purchasing. Marketing ideas include working with the state tourism department to create and distribute a map of country stores, developing a logo and web presence, and producing brochures and other marketing tools.

"Most people place enormous value on having a good little shop down the road, where you can relax and have a cup of coffee and talk with your neighbors," says Hathaway. But people tend to take such places for granted, he notes. They’ll drive the extra miles to save a few bucks at a convenience store chain, and then wonder why the heart of their village has closed its doors. The Alliance hopes to remind people of the importance of supporting country stores.

Alliance members also plan to pool their purchasing power to reduce costs and gain leverage with suppliers. One particularly pressing problem is that many suppliers will not deliver to stores in remote areas. With the Alliance as a central purchaser, however, contracts to supply dozens of stores will soon be contingent on delivering throughout the state.

"We have to get big to stay small," says Hathaway.

Other goals increasing sales of Vermont-made goods, encouraging members to become involved in local planning and decision-making bodies, and establishing a presence at the state legislature.

The Alliance also hopes to help communities resurrect country stores that have already closed. Hathaway says one possibility is to assist communities in forming cooperatives that would buy the property, maintain the building, and lease it to a new owner at cost.

It’s not a new idea. Many country stores were in fact started as town cooperatives in the early 19th century. Hathaway purchased his store 26 years ago with the help of fourteen residents who put up $1,000 each.

More recently, a number of country stores in neighboring New Hampshire have been revived thanks to community efforts. In Hebron, townspeople formed the Hebron Common Cooperative, renovated their old country store, and now lease it to a new owner for $1 a year. In Harrisville, the task was undertaken by a nonprofit historic preservation organization. In Sandwich, a group of residents known as the "Sandwich 10" stepped in when the local owner decided to retire.



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Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and designs policy to counter concentrated corporate power and strengthen local economies.