Minding the store. A century later, the Gillinghams are still plying their trade

OUT back, David Chestnut is loading groceries into a Ford Bronco. ``About 15'' deliveries today, he explains, as he hefts the cardboard boxes full of eggs and bread and produce.

Mr. Chestnut, a burly, good-natured former merchantmarine sailor who grew up in Brooklyn, is carrying on a tradition in this central Vermont village. F. H. Gillingham & Sons, the town's 100-year-old general store, has always delivered its goods to elderly residents and others who prefer the convenience of doorstep service.

Clara Richardson, who worked as a cashier and bookkeeper in the store for 60 years, remembers when Calvin Coolidge, who was born nearby in Plymouth, Vt., would amble in. Despite his sometimes sour public visage, Mr. Coolidge was ``as jolly and nice as could be,'' says Miss Richardson.

Then there was poet Robert Frost, a resident of Ripton, another town in the vicinity. He, too, was a pleasant customer, she says, who ``always had a joke.''

Homespun memories, door-to-door delivery, a cardless in-house charging system, worn floorboards, by-the-handful wooden nail bins -- these touches give Gillingham's a down-home feel, even in the midst of gourmet cheeses, French cooking implements, and other products the store's shrewd founder, F. H. himself, wouldn't have dreamed of.

The venerable establishment has had to keep pace with Woodstock, a town of about 2,000 that has changed markedly over the last couple of decades, according to longtime residents.

Vacationers and second-home seekers have come to love the place, with its blend of the quaint and the chic. Accordingly, the community has had to get used to a rainbow of out-of-state license plates, traffic snarls, boutiques of every name and nature, and, occasionally, opinionated newcomers.

Down the main street a ways from the store lives Elizabeth Gillingham, the wife of Warren Gillingham, one of the two sons of the founder. Chatting on the back porch of her pleasant, green-shuttered home, she comments that the family store is ``more or less'' as it ever was.

``The natives, like us, we like to keep with the old traditions.''

By contrast, the trendy little shops along main street seem to come and go in the blink of an eye, observes Mrs. Gillingham. ``They'll be here six months or so and then they're gone, and we don't even know who was running it,'' she says.

``As far as I'm concerned, I can go up the street and not know three people, and I've lived here 85 years!'' Mrs. Gillingham says. ``Some of the newcomers are nice, they're wonderful. Others don't want to know you.''

Those newcomers, however, have become a mainstay of business at F. H. Gillingham & Sons. Actually, the client`ele is split between permanent Woodstockers, seasonal residents, and tourists, explains Jireh Billings, Mrs. Gillingham's grandson and present manager of the store. His mother, Peggy Billings, owns the store and has overseen its expansion into areas that cater to the community's many second-home dwellers. A much-expanded housewares department, now on a par with groceries and hardware, is an example.

Mr. Billings has found managing the old store akin to an exploration of his family roots. He has supervised renovation of upstairs rooms, digging through attics and other nooks of the building that date back as far as 1815.

He has discovered antique scales, ``beautiful'' old wooden cases, and, best of all, perhaps, a scrapbook of all his great-grandfather's newspaper advertisements.

The ads, in heavy 19th-century type, are long, and heavy on copy and business philosophy, notes Billings, as he scans one with the contemporary-sounding heading, ``Economy's Headquarters.'' F. H. was a man ahead of his times, says his great-grandson. ``He was daring to publish prices when no one else was doing it.''

``When I have had problems coming up with my own ads,'' says the sandy-haired, bespectacled young store manager, ``I've come up here and read a couple of his. I love to quote him.''

Trotting down stairs rippled by 100 years of clerical bustle, Jireh points out that one of the store's growth areas is Vermont products -- from maple dessert sauce to Vermont Country Crackers. He also points out one of Gillingham's two resident ``mousers'' -- ``F'' and ``H'' -- lounging in an out box in the store's business office. The customers love the cats, he says, giving ``H'' a stroke. ``Once in a while we think we ought to make him the director of public relations,'' Jireh says.

For all its oldtime flavor, Gillingham's, like most well-run businesses these days, does have a computer on hand to help with inventory. But the store will never go to bleeping ``scanners or wands'' at the check-out counter, vows its manager.

That would be straying a wee bit too far from tradition.

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