SULLIVAN — While the Route 9 detour might be a nuisance to some, it’s proved to be a major blow to a local general store’s bottom line.
John F. Little owns Sullivan’s Little Country Store, which sits in front of the flashing light on Route 9.
The construction to replace the Route 9 bridge over Otter Brook, which began in late March, stretches up to Little’s front door. A stone’s throw away sits a pile of dirt under a tarp, a mound of boulders and various equipment.
Construction is expected to wrap up in late October. Until then, large vehicles — including large trucks, motor homes and vehicles with big travel trailers — are detoured onto routes 202 and 101 to avoid the unsuitable patch of gravel.
At the flashing light, a reflective road sign alerts drivers that this part of Route 9 is closed, but another orange sign informs them the nearby business is still open.
Little said his sales have taken a hard hit since March, and he credited his regulars for going out of their way to support him and the store.
“With the construction they have really stepped up, and if it wasn’t for them, I would not be here now. Simple as that,” he said. “They really have been there at the times when needed.”
He mentioned one customer who drives up from Massachusetts once a week and buys 3½ dozen doughnuts to hand out to friends and coworkers. The store’s financial backer is also a close friend, who Little said has offered flexibility in payments during these next few months.
The first couple weeks of the construction were the worst, Little said, recalling when the barricade was farther away from his business and flaggers directed drivers away from the intersection. Then the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the soil in front of the store to be dug up for testing because there were gas pumps onsite years ago, he said, so a dirt crater sat in front of his building during that process.
It’s improved since then, Little said, but he’s lost a significant chunk of business. Aside from regular traffic, the bulk of the store’s business came from truck drivers traveling down Route 9.
Of those sales he’s lost, though, he said he’s gained about half of it back from the construction workers. With each portion of the project, he said there’s a new crew of five or so people, who he said have all been as accommodating as possible and very friendly toward him.
“The construction workers themselves have shown me nothing but concern for my business, of how negatively they’re impacting it, and if there’s anything they can do for me,” he said, adding that they’ve moved the signs and barriers as needed. “... Each one of them groups have, in my opinion, asked me in a genuine way, ‘How’s everything going?’ ”
He noted that he hasn’t been contacted by anyone at the N.H. Department of Transportation, which he finds “disheartening.”
As the contractors rotate in for each job, Little said there’s typically a short gap in business until they realize his store serves hot meals. Then they come in for breakfast and lunch and sometimes take cookies home for dessert.
“So I keep getting spaces as the crews change, but besides that, we’re doing alright,” he said.
But even with crews buying food, there’s still a 25 percent deficit in the store’s sales. Little is hoping to recuperate some of that from summer visitors to Granite Lake for whom going to Keene for a quick bite might be too much of a hassle this year.
Little pointed out that stores like his “are dinosaurs,” and keeping them afloat is hard enough as it is.
Another local general store, South Acworth Village Store, nearly shuttered this past winter after a bridge closure last summer. Board members said the store remained in business because of crowdfunding and community donations.
For the Sullivan store, this is the second summer of construction.
The current construction is part of a $13.5 million project to replace the Route 9 bridge as well as rehabilitate the Centre Street bridge and fix the roads. It began last year and included road improvements near the Granite Gorge Ski Area, slightly south of Sullivan’s Little Country Store.
Little said that earlier roadwork caused many drivers to take alternate routes last summer to avoid delays, which also affected his bottom line — and that came just a few months after he reopened the store.
Little took over the business from his mother, Carole J. Little, after she died in April 2017. Because she didn’t have a will, he continued running the store while he went through the court system to transfer ownership. The store closed briefly in late 2017, and he reopened the business in his name last January.
He again expressed his appreciation for his regulars for keeping the lights on throughout the store’s history and Route 9’s ongoing facelift.
Even the orange metal “BUSINESS OPEN” signs out front are because of a customer, who Little said called the N.H. Department of Transportation to get the signs put up after the first few weeks of construction.
In the end, perseverance is key, Little said.
“You can’t let stuff in life knock you down. You just get up and keep on plugging,” he said. “... So if we can make it through this one, then we’ll just keep doing it.”