I think people like the idea of having general stores, like little local mom-and-pop style stores, for the fact that it’s part of New England’s local color,” says Willy Gomarlo, the new manager at Gilsum Village Store. “It’s always been that way around here long before any of us.”
But the lovely idea of having a general store in the neighborhood — and the practicality of creating a thriving general store business — does not always match up. As a result, many rural general stores have disappeared. But some general stores in the region have found innovative ways to keep the dream alive and stay afloat.
For Gilsum Village Store, the solution was the buying power of a larger general store — Gomarlo’s Shop and Save Supermarket in West Swanzey (which in 2016 became an independent Hannaford store). Willy Gomarlo’s cousin, Jerry, owner of Gomarlo’s, took over the Gilsum Village Store earlier this year. Jerry’s eldest child attends the Gilsum STEAM Academy, giving the family a personal tie to the town. And when Jerry heard the village store was in a downturn, he decided to step in.
“To help out the town, realistically, was his only goal — to revitalize this place,” Gomarlo says.
The Gilsum Village Store sits on an extremely old site. It was established with its current name in 1881, but a picture hanging on the wall depicts the spot as a trading post or hardware-type store far earlier.
The shop’s footprint, covering a modest 1,100 square feet, presents a challenge when it comes to packing in all the necessities locals might be looking for. But the Gormarlos seem ready for the challenge — and if any family has the know-how to pull off a comeback for the store, it’s them.
Their grocery store in Swanzey dates back more than 30 years, and before that, their original store existed down by the covered bridge in West Swanzey. Back in those days, there was also a second Gomarlo’s store on Main Street in Winchester.
“We’ve been doing custom meats for like 80 years,” Gomarlo says, and it’s a tradition they’re bringing to Gilsum in full force.
LITTLE STORE WITH BIG STORE PRICES
“Any sales that we run at our big store in terms of meat sales, I bring up here for the people,” Gormarlo notes.
That includes the custom meat packages that patrons of the Swanzey store enjoy. Say they need 200 pounds of ground burger for an event happening the next day.
“That’s easy to do,” Gomarlo notes.
Prepared food is also bringing a lot of customers to this latest iteration of the store. Each day features a Crock-Pot special, from chili to chowders. On the weekends, they serve baked beans from a 150-year old family recipe.
Patrons are also fans of hot food items such as mozzarella sticks, onion rings, bacon cheeseburgers and pulled pork.
“People have been really happy; sometimes I get stuck behind the grill for a good six hours,” Gomarlo says.
All the basic grocery needs are on hand, as well as more than 75 beers and sparkling drinks, a growing variety of wines, an array of tobacco products, and solutions for standard automotive service. In addition, Gomarlo is staying ahead of seasonal needs such as fishing gear and bait, charcoal and smoking chips, ice, coolers and basic camping items. The ultimate aim is to offer grocery store prices within the context of a small general store.
Supporting the village store via the larger grocery is an ingenious approach to get around the pricing conundrum that has foiled so many of New Hampshire’s classic shops. The Gomarlos are hopeful it’s a strategy that will pay off and allow the store to stand on its own soon in terms of profit.
“I think it would be really hard for a store or for an individual or a family to take over a little general store … without having something else backing them. To go through any vendors at all and try to keep your store stocked — I can’t even fathom,” Gomarlo says.
THE HISTORICAL SOLUTION
Other general stores across New England have taken a different approach to staying sustainable; they’ve nestled themselves under the umbrella of a parent nonprofit, typically one dedicated to the preservation of historic town entities. Such is the case with the Putney General Store, the oldest one still in existence in Vermont.
The town, which is home to several well-known educational institutions has drawn people from all over to its rural setting for decades. “It’s amazing how many people have fond memories of Putney, and the general store is almost always a part of that,” says Lyssa Papazian, current co-manager.
The store, which dates back two centuries, has gone through tumultuous times in recent years. In 2008, the building was severely damaged by fire, and the community rallied to rebuild so it could remain both the visual and social centerpiece of the town.
At the time, several other local businesses had gone under, and the economic downturn was underway.
“It was so dismal, that I think in some ways the general store … became a kind of symbol,” says Papazian.
But then, in a crushing act, an arson fire destroyed the structure just as renovations were nearing completion.
“That was just such a violent act against the entire community … It really became this kind of mourning, but together,” recalls Betsy MacIsaac, the store’s other co-manager.
At that point, it became clear that private ownership wouldn’t be realistic for the site to be restored the way it truly should be. The town was also concerned about losing say in how the property would be used.
“The idea of maintaining control and raising all the money necessary led to this nonprofit model,” Papazian explains.
The model involved shifting the general store under the oversight of Putney’s historical society, of which Papazian and MacIsaac are both members. The move was also an attempt to avoid debt, a weight that so many other general stores of the past have crumbled beneath.
An impressive amount of funding was raised for the 1.3 million-dollar project, but the store was left with a $230,000 mortgage. While ideally the remainder of the money would be raised to eliminate that debt, as well, the historical society has had enough on their plates turning the latest incarnation of the general store into a sustainable one. That has happened successfully with the dedication of Papazian and MacIsaac, who have worked tirelessly to usher in a new era of the business.
“We realized that what we’d have to do is open it and make it vital again, and sell it while it’s in good shape,” Papazian describes.
The pair has done just that, and they were even honored by the town last year, each receiving a Community Service Award for their incredible work.
The general store is thriving and growing quickly, even with only the downstairs in operation, and now its co-managers are looking to hand off the baton so they can return to other endeavors. The plan is for the historical society to maintain ownership of the building but for someone new to purchase and take over the business itself.
Now it’s just about finding the right person to fill that role. Though slowing down a bit sounds good to Papazian and MacIsaac, there is definitely a lot they’ll miss when they step back.
“I think that to me the interaction with the community is the best part of it… Just the gratitude and support that our patrons and the community give us is really special,” MacIsaac says.
In times when we’re often attached to our smartphone screens, MacIsaac believes “it’s important to keep in mind how critical it is to have that interaction with your fellow townspeople.”
A NONPROFIT MODEL THAT WORKS
Cultivating those neighborly relationships has been a catalyst for other general stores in the region to embrace similar nonprofit models. For instance, Harrisville’s general store falls under the wing of Historical Harrisville, Inc. (HHI), a nonprofit created to preserve and enhance the quality, beauty, and historical significance of Harrisville village.
While the town’s general store is sustainable because it is subsidized, the value the community gets out of it is undeniable.
“It’s definitely a good investment,” says HHI’s executive director, Erin Hammerstedt. “We’re able to offer it in a way that it’s a welcoming place to be,” she notes, explaining that the magic lies in the shop’s authentic identity.
With its fresh food, local goods and handy grocery items, its inventory is a draw for villagers and visitors alike who also enjoy the inviting, community atmosphere.
The pleasure people take from the convenience and conviviality of a classic general store is obvious, but anyone involved in the inner workings is likely aware of how quickly the tide can turn for these types of businesses.
Such was the case with South Acworth Village Store, which took a terrible hit last summer when the bridge leading to its doors closed for replacement. During what should have been the shop’s busiest season, its aisles were quiet, and winter looked like it could be curtains for the operation.
However, a number of donations and proceeds from several community fundraisers have bolstered the business, and it’s headed into another season. Owned by the town’s historical society and staffed by volunteers, the store is a social mainstay for the town, but it has a long way to go before reaching safer margins.
Combos of creative ownership models, innovative business practices, and charitable donations continue to allow small-town hubs like these to press forward here and there. But one thing is clear — for a general store to survive, it takes a community. T
Caroline Tremblay writes from Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.