The Vermont country store has long been idealized by promoters of state tourism as a quaint relic of the past, valued for its nostalgic qualities. Research by UVM professor of geography Cheryl Morse shows that traditional country stores also offer vital services to Vermonters who live in a state where a high percentage of towns have 2,500 or fewer residents.
“I became interested in the how local stores operate in Vermont today, and what functions they provide beyond tourism,” says Morse, who describes her findings in a recent paper “The Multifunctionality of Country Stores: Insights on Resilience from Rural Vermont” published by the Geographical Review.
The paper, derived from a qualitative study conducted in 2015 and 2016, was supported by Prudence Doherty, Special Collections Public Services Librarian at UVM, and Newton Rose ‘17, a UVM history major who worked as research assistant.
Sifting through the UVM library collections including old issues of Vermont Life magazine and other periodicals, Doherty finds that country stores have always provided vital services to rural communities – the eighteenth-century storekeeper often performed the roles of banker, barber, and pharmacist.
“We see the tourism angle going way back,” Doherty says. “But we also see that country stores are important centers that provide economic and social needs of the time.”
The effects of regionalized landfills, consolidated school districts, and the economic pull of larger corporate stores, Morse argues, reduces the number of places where chance encounters occur in rural Vermont communities.
“As services increasingly centralize at the regional level, the country store may be the only place left where you run into neighbors,” she writes.
Morse’s research was exploratory by design, investigating how 17 stores in central Vermont functioned within their towns. Research assistant Newton Rose conducted interviews with store managers, storeowners, and other key stakeholders. The results catalog a wide array of services that might not be found anywhere else in town, including ATMs, sale of hunting and fishing licenses, dependable wireless internet access and Post Office boxes. Informal services typically include community bulletin boards, free book shelves, drop-off points for local charities and ticket sales for local events and fundraisers.
Morse likes to use cheese as an example for the diversity of country store products on the shelves. “There’s usually Velveeta, because there are certain basic grocery staples that people need in a pinch. But most stores also offer local products, like locally made cheese, which diversifies the appeal and provides economic opportunity for local farmers and entrepreneurs.”
The researchers also developed a list of features country stores have in common. “There are a critical number of characteristics a true country store needs to have,” Morse said. “It ranges from aesthetics like creaky wooden floors and a wood fired stove, to products like loose candy, wedges of cheese under a glass dome, and some basic hardware and hunting stuff.”
Another key finding was the role country stores play in local emergencies. During Tropical Storm Irene, which brought heavy rain and damaging floods to the state in August of 2011, stores became de facto hubs for emergency services. They were relied on as drop-off points for supplies, served as information centers, and provided a place to charge phones and batteries.
Morse confined her study to independently-owned stores, usually located in the town center, that have served their communities for decades. But she observed that larger chain convenience stores, often located near highway intersections outside of town, also seem to adjust goods and services to the specific needs of the area.
“One local chain convenience store might have somewhat different options than another. It’s one way businesses respond to place," she says.