SULLIVAN — For the first time in months, motorists can drive right up to Sullivan’s Little Country Store now that the new Route 9 bridge is open to traffic.
The store has been a local landmark for decades, but struggled mightily through the spring and summer as a detour for the state construction project made it difficult for people to get in its parking lot.
On Tuesday evening, the shelves were barren and the cigarette selection limited. The display case for the store’s renowned doughnuts showcased mere crumbs.
“I’m a day late, a dollar short,” owner John Little said gruffly with a downward stare.
Little said he’s closing the store for the foreseeable future after Wednesday, when he planned to rise early to open and stay late to close for one last 12-hour day.
Running the business with his mother for years, and after she died in 2017, Little, 59, was frank in blaming the ongoing work along Route 9 for his sales taking a hit, but remained dignified in his assessment of the situation and the store’s importance to the town.
“I wasn’t planning on getting rich here,” Little said, leaning into the counter. “But I did plan on being part of the community here, but unfortunately, the state has let this community down. It’s as simple as that.”
Little says his total sales were cut by two-thirds over the course of this year as traffic was diverted away from the store. All told, he estimates the slowdown cut into his profits by at least $25,000.
The bridge replacement is part of a 2-mile stretch of infrastructure improvements along Route 9 between Granite Gorge Ski Area in Roxbury and the Centre Street intersection in Sullivan. The work also includes utility relocations, road reconstruction, drainage and guardrail improvements and slope stabilization efforts, according to the N.H. Department of Transportation.
But last month, officials with the state agency described unforeseen challenges in the terrain sloping down toward Otter Brook, which led to delays in the bridge work.
Truck drivers also continued to ignore a detour that would have kept them off that entire stretch of Route 9, turning a once sturdy guardrail into a crinkled string of metal and ratcheting up the signage, which Little said compounded the problem.
The bridge finally reopened to all traffic earlier this month, but traffic cones remain with further work to be done.
Sherry Connor, a longtime family friend who helped Little out around the store back when things were too busy, had to restrain herself in describing the frustration she felt about the way the project was handled.
“You couldn’t get here to even get in the door, because the place was blocked,” Connor said.
A spokeswoman for the N.H. Department of Transportation wasn’t immediately available for comment after business hours Tuesday.
Moving away from the gloominess of the impending closure, Connor and Little reminisced over the days when the store offered gas and was the center of town.
Connor described herself as “the little tagalong” among Little and his friends growing up just down the street from the store, and spoke of how Little’s mother, Carole, dreamed of owning and running it.
The Sullivan store is just the latest in the Monadnock Region to be squeezed by roadwork.
Last winter, the South Acworth Village Store was on the brink of closing after bridgework all but cut off its peak tourism sales from the summer. Eventually, the store recouped $10,000 in donations.
Little said he never warmed to asking for help. Even the idea of starting a GoFundMe page online gives him the shivers, he said.
“The last thing I want to do is beg to make an existence,” Little said. “... This was my retirement, and now it’s like —”
“The big thing on that,” Connor chimed in, “is that’s not the way we were raised around here.”
Little lamented that he may end up needing public assistance to stay afloat.
Asked how he imagines his mother would feel if she were around for this, Little raised his brow and leaned on his elbow, taking a pause.
“Unfortunately, when she saw this [expletive] happening, her quick temper would override mine,” he quipped. “Simple as that.”
The plan, in the meantime, is to see if someone will buy the property, where Little lives upstairs. He said he’s already found a Realtor.
If it’s still on the market by the end of the winter, Little said he’ll try to get a job, stay living above, and hopefully save up enough to try and open the store again.
His doughnut-baking skills are already in demand, he said, with a friend having already hooked him up with a baker in Keene. But Little was adamant that his purpose has always been to keep the store there for the community.
“It’s definitely Sullivan’s store,” Little said. “Not my store.”