Milk, bread, and comfort: Why Vermont’s country stores are essential

Why We Wrote This

The quintessential country store has long been a New England bedrock. As social distancing shutters Vermont, these stores continue to keep their communities fed and nurtured – perhaps more than ever before.

Gareth Henderson
Messages of hope fill the right-front window of the Barnard General Store in Barnard, Vermont, on a sunny April day. One reads, ‘We got this Vermont!’

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Around noon each Friday, Simi Johnston dons a mask and puts out brown paper bags with grocery orders, each labeled with the customer’s name for pickup. For Ms. Johnston, co-owner of Vermont’s South Woodstock Country Store, continuing to serve the community while keeping everyone safe is critical. The store closed to the public in late March, two days before the state required restaurants to shut down.

“The reason we run the country store is because we care about our community,” she says. “Without it, South Woodstock is very different. Closing the doors of the country store, for myself and my staff, was surprisingly emotional.”

Hers is one of many country stores still serving the public during the crisis, during which many customers are self-isolating with limited grocery options. Country stores across the U.S., from New England to the south and the Midwest, are the heartbeat of their communities, often standing in the same spot for generations, growing up with the town.

With most businesses closed during Vermont’s state of emergency, country stores have become more than essential food hubs – for many here, these stores are a lifeline holding the fabric of the community together.

As COVID-19 restrictions were tightening in mid-March, Jillian Bradley and Joe Minerva made a big decision: They pledged to keep the doors of the Barnard General Store open, no matter what.

Now, the Barnard store has a grocery home-delivery system supported by volunteers, and they also offer curbside pickup. But it’s been a long haul for the store, in this remote Vermont town of about 900 people, located a half-hour from the nearest grocery establishment.

“Most days we are working 10 to 12 hours a day, but we are happy to do it for our community,” Ms. Bradley says.

Theirs is one of many country stores still serving the public during the crisis, during which many customers are self-isolating with limited grocery options. Country stores across the U.S., from New England to the South and the Midwest, are the heartbeat of their communities, often standing in the same spot for generations, growing up with the town.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

Eight years ago, the Barnard store closed for about a year but came roaring back after a community trust with hundreds of local members raised the funds to save the business. It reopened in 2013, with Ms. Bradley and Mr. Minerva as the new owners. The community simply would not let the store fail.

The couple keenly feels that support now, amid a time of need for many Vermonters. Grateful emails have been flooding Ms. Bradley’s inbox.

“Everyone has been so kind and it is honestly the reason we keep getting out of bed every morning and hustling as much as we possibly can,” she says.

Each day, wearing masks and gloves, they and their staff sanitize all surfaces and equipment.

Customer Russ Hebert, from nearby Sharon, picked up a sandwich order recently as a few customers wearing masks dropped by for groceries. He said local stores are showing how important they are to their communities.

“It’s not like everybody has a garden anymore,” Mr. Hebert says.

These Vermont stores have become essential food hubs. With most country store buildings closed during Vermont’s state of emergency – which was extended beyond May 15 – online ordering and curbside pickup has become the trend. Such is the case a 40-minute drive south at the South Woodstock Country Store, which has been running its curbside operation since early April. Around noon each Friday, co-owner Simi Johnston, donning her mask, puts out brown paper bags with grocery orders, each labeled with the customer’s name for pickup.

For Ms. Johnston, the main focus is continuing to serve the community while keeping everyone safe. The store closed to the public in late March, two days before the state required restaurants to shut down.

The entire operation is sanitized, and the store tries not to touch deliveries for 24 hours. The first week of curbside, the store saw 20 orders – which is nothing like being fully open.

“It’s a huge hit, for sure, but we’re definitely hoping there’ll be a lot of understanding from everyone around that,” Ms. Johnston says. 

It’s been tough not to see people dining and chatting inside, she adds. Almost every morning, a local group used to gather for coffee at one of the wooden tables just inside the store. Some grab a morning paper and sit down for breakfast near the deli, while others grab a breakfast sandwich on the way to work.

“The reason we run the country store is because we care about our community,” she says. “Without it, South Woodstock is very different. Closing the doors of the country store, for myself and my staff, was surprisingly emotional.”

Giving back

With Vermont’s unemployment rate soaring to more than 20% during the pandemic, many stores are also finding a way to give back, even while they themselves struggle. In Craftsbury, which sits an hour south of the Canadian border in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, businesses have joined forces to set up a pop-up food pantry. The Craftsbury General Store put out a call for donations, and they came in fast.

“There’s been a lot of generosity in that realm,” says co-owner Kit Basom. 

At the store, the doors are closed to the public, but they’re doing business seven days a week, filling online and phone orders for curbside pickup. The store’s owners have added a third person to help with phones, and everyone is on deck to be a “personal shopper.”

“It’s busy in a whole new way,” says co-owner Ms. Basom.

The Craftsbury store has also added a “virtual tour” on its website, so customers can browse the shelves digitally. The staff regularly updates an online list of items people can order in bulk – think flour, rice, or pasta.

“We’re moving a lot more product from our grocery section than we ever did before,” Ms. Basom says.

For many here, these stores are a lifeline holding the fabric of the community together. There is growing concern about the warmer months, from May to October, when these small village stores usually make the majority of their annual income. Though it’s been on their minds, Ms. Bradley from the Barnard store says she is confident they will find a way to make it.

“It’s sink or swim time and there is no way we will let ourselves sink,” she says. “There is no way this community will let us sink, either. It takes a village.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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