The Monadnock Region has historically been rife with country stores, from the small neighborhood markets in Keene neighborhoods — some within a stone’s throw of one another — to the more “general” stores in smaller towns. You can (or could) see them in Alstead, Acworth and Putney. Or Gilsum, Greenfield and Sullivan. Or Dublin, Hancock and Harrisville.
More than economic enterprises, they double as touchstones for the community — the water cooler around which everyone stops to catch up.
Keeping those stores alive in the face of Walmart, Amazon and the various dollar-store chains is becoming harder and harder. Sometimes, all it takes is a nudge, like the one provided by the state’s major construction project along Route 9 that ate into months of sales at the Little Country Store in Sullivan, leading to its closure in November.
In other cases, the bottom line just keeps rising, to the point where remaining open — however much the owner and the community want it to succeed — becomes impossible.
There are even cases, as with the Four Corners Store in Richmond, where some unanticipated disaster — in that case the gasoline additive MtBE had contaminated the site to the extent that the store had to be closed and the site cleaned up — brings a premature end to the enterprise.
In 2017, when the town was pondering plans to resurrect the store, we cited its importance as a community hub — a place where locals could stop to exchange news, gossip and opinion, and maybe grab a bite or a drink. We noted that in those towns and villages without such a store, some other place often takes up the mantle. You can meet most everyone in town at the Walpole Recycling Center on a given Saturday. In other communities, the post office is the place to be.
Especially in rural communities, there is a need for someplace to serve that purpose.
Harvard professor and social-science writer — and sometimes Jaffrey resident — Robert Putnam has made a career of studying our society’s diminishing social capital and waning degree of personal interaction. There are ways to measure such declines on a grand scale, but it’s harder in a small town.
We, too, suspect something of value is lost without that interaction. Maybe it’s as simple as coming away from a conversation with the thought, “I like that guy,” which, in turn, might eventually lead to the notion that others’ wants and needs are worth considering come voting day. Or maybe it’s coming away having learned something new or getting a different view of things. Maybe it’s even having your views reinforced.
Maybe it’s reinforcing the idea that we’re all in this together, which seems an alien concept at times these days. Whatever it is, it’s real and worth preserving.
But progress marches on, and it seems it does so at the expense of small operations — particularly those that offer, on a shoestring margin, a variety of products and services, including just the chance to share the latest town news. Social media may serve as stand-ins in some regard, but they’re a poor substitute for actual human interaction.
The water coolers are drying up, and we’re all going to be the thirstier for it.