Keeping country stores alive in Vermont

If you grew up in a small town in Vermont, chances are, you have your favorite local general store. But their numbers are shrinking. The Vermont Grocer’s Association estimates there are probably 75 to 80 general stores left across the state. They say, that’s down from about 100 ten years ago.

“It’s been quite a rollercoaster ride at times,” says owner Warren Miller.

A ride Warren Miller says he and his wife Kathy started 33 years ago when they bought the Elmore Store. But he says after 150 years in business, the store was starting to feel too old.

“I said to my wife a little over a year ago, we really need to do something different and special, or we need to sell the store because it’s just dying,” he says.

So they invested $25,000 into a pizza oven and this brand-new deck overlooking Lake Elmore and the mountain. It’s money he says was well spent.

“It is a destination now — and that’s what I was looking for,” he says.

It’s been a hit with customers. Warren says he had a record day this summer when 1,400 people came through the doors! With this new gathering spot, some come to meet up with friends over a cup of coffee, sandwich, or pizza and enjoy the lake view.

“You come here because this is where you start your day. I get here at 6:30 in the morning, get my coffee and the paper, the day’s mail, and then I go back home,” says customer Buster Furman.

“The deck is something that has been needed — people have needed a place to come like this,” says customer Martha Twombly.

Projects like this one are a smart move. The Vermont Grocer’s Association says that of the country stores in Vermont that are thriving, the ones that keep doing well are the ones that keep rethinking how they do business.

Which brings us to the pizza. The Millers say their partnership with Fire Tower Pizza has helped business boom, beyond just their store.

“You can just be so creative with different pizza combinations that that really works too. Like this weekend we have a curried eggplant pizza with fresh tomatoes and basil, and everything is coming from right across the street,” says Kristen Howell with Fire Tower Pizza. “If you think about it, just this venture we have four businesses involved. We have the Elmore Store, we have Fire Tower Pizza, we have Jupiter Farm, and we have Elmore Mountain Bread company. So for a small town, that’s a lot of businesses.”

“Restaurant” is the latest hat the small store will wear. It’s also the local post office, which the owners say helps bring people through the doors too.

“Elmore is a small community. We have 850 people. We have our general store. We have the only one-room schoolhouse left in the state of Vermont. So we’re the hub,” says owner Kathy Miller.

And being the hub, Kathy says, means if they call it quits, they’ll be letting the town down too.

“We’re not going to be the next store to close doors. We’re going to do what we have to do to survive to stay open,” she says.

Except, she says, for that one day a year!

“Christmas is the one day we’re closed. And I keep threatening on a Leap Year I’m going to get a Christmas tree like in July and put it out in front of the store and take two days off!” she says.

And we want to hear where your favorite general stores in Vermont are! Let us know on our Facebook page and maybe you’ll see them featured here on “The Weekend!”

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