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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Closing the Books

CENTER OF LOCAL TRADE. Built in 1871 by Nelson Tewksbury, the Newbury Center store and post office was the retail location for this hamlet. (Photo by Sue Martin) 

OLD AND OLDER STORES GONE.  Two of Fairlee's historic retail outlets are pictured. In the background is the 1846 Brick Store that was destroyed in a fire in 1982. In the foreground is the Colby Block that housed a number of stores from 1910 until it burned in 2007. (Fairlee Historical Society)

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During the years, Bradford's Main Street has experienced a pattern of businesses opening and closing. Perry's Oil is gone. It has been replaced by Thomson Fuels and Alarmco.  Pictured above is the going out of business sign for North of the Falls shadowing the stone reminder of the Doe Brothers that occupied the storefront for many years.  The Space on Main will open on Oct. 12, 2018 and occupy the space left vacant by the demise of Hill's Five and Ten.

“I’m not much of a shopper, really, but I still feel a pang of regret when a local store with loads of history closes the books on it.”

Dan Mackey, Valley News , July 14, 2018

In July, Valley New columnist Dan Mackey wrote an article entitled “When All Shopping Was Local.” As a West Lebanon resident, his observations centered on that part of the Upper Valley. Informative and entertaining though it was, no mention was made of those retail stores that have come and gone in our immediate area.

This column will attempt to fill that void. It describes the rise of the first local country stores, the impact of village retail centers and  summary of those factors that have challenged those centers.. Faced with scores of local examples, I have used samples of retail establishments to illustrate historic trends. Information was taken from local town histories and newspaper as well as online sources.

Pioneers who settled this area were subsistence farmers and generally produced most articles they used. The few other consumer items they needed were brought overland on sleds or wagons, depending on the season, and on flatboats on the Connecticut River. Additionally, farm families would barter agricultural products for items from local craftsmen, including blacksmiths and shoemakers.

Col. William Wallace of Newbury was one of the first to establish a store. Beginning in 1775, he sold items he imported. As there was a general shortage of currency, he would accept fur, pot and pearl ash, ginseng root, handspun cloth or labor for the items families needed.  Early store owners or traders would stockpile local goods until they had enough to ship to down country markets. 

Some of the  other early stores in the area include the following: Jonathan Conant in Lyme, 1785; Gen. John Montgomery, North Haverhill, 1793; James Cameron, Ryegate, c. 1797; Josiah Marsh, Wells River, 1799; John Hill, Groton, c. 1802 and Daniel Wheeler, Orford, 1804.  Micah Barron opened the first store in Bradford around 1800 and opened stores in East Corinth and East Topsham between 1808 and 1810. General stores opened in each of Thetford’s villages at about the same time. 

Old account books indicate that the earliest country stores kept a limited number of items. “Indeed, but for the trade in ardent spirits, they could hardly have existed at all.” As the demand grew, the variety of  items carried increased. In 1814, Thomas Barstow’s establishment in Wells River offered dry goods, groceries, drugs, books and ardent spirits, “very much indeed of the latter.”

Population concentrated around hydro powered mills and transportation crossroads, leading to commercial villages in Bradford, Wells River and Lyme. With the expansion of the railroad at Woodsville, mining near West Fairlee, and tourism in Fairlee, those villages also developed retail offerings.    

Bradford in the 1850s was an example of the development of the mercantile economy. In addition to three hotels and a livery stable, there were five merchants that sold dry goods and groceries. These stores offered everything from medicines,  crockery, ready-made clothes and hardware to spices and ironware. By the 1870s, there was also a shoemaker and two tailors as well as four milliners along with harness makers, a dentist and three blacksmiths. 

Wells River continued to develop as a commercial center. By the 1880s, there were commercial buildings along Main Street offering consumer goods to customers from that village and outlying rural area.

The coming of the railroad  made it easier for merchants to offer a wider variety of good. It was not unusual for local merchants to offer items manufactured from both throughout the nation and from abroad. The changes in society brought an enhanced consumer demand for merchandise and retailers met those demands.

The coming of the railroad also made it easier for mail-order businesses such as Sears-Roebuck to offer merchandise sent directly to the consumers.  With the introduction of Rural Free Delivery in 1896, rural customers had access to a variety of merchandise beyond that offered by local stores. 

Woodsville was the last of the commercial centers to expand. The 1919 history of Woodsville lists the following businesses: five grocery stores, one jewelry store, two hardware/furniture stores, two banks, several clothing stores, one barber, three lawyers, three doctors, one hospital, one druggist, two hotels and a number of restaurants. 

Stores were generally owned by local entrepreneurial families and therefore reputations were highly significant. Distance of travel to the commercial center determined how frequently customers came to shop. As many stores were specialized, shopping entailed visits to a number of outlets.

Generally, the customer would approach the counter and indicate to the store staff the items desired. As many products were purchased by the store in large boxes or barrels, many items had to be weighted out and wrapped for the customer. Weekly or even monthly trips to the local general store also meant devoting some time to catching up on local happenings. 

The arrival of the automobile changed shopping habits. Trading was no longer as local and could be undertaken more frequently. A shopping trip from Corinth to Bradford, for instance, was no longer an all-day activity.

There were also peddlers selling tin ware and notions and salesmen with ice, meat and milk delivery wagons who visited rural areas. Even into the mid-20th century, the Sunbeam and Grand Union delivery men continued that practice.

In the 1940s, local retailing underwent major changes. Self-service grocery stores like First National and A & P, began to appear in commercial centers. The local First National stores, including those in Bradford, Fairlee and Woodsville, were supplied out of a regional distribution center in North Haverhill.    

Called supermarkets, these self-service stores offered aisles filled with a variety of food and household products. Customers pushed carts around, perhaps stopping briefly to order from the meat counter where the butcher would assist with selections. Checkout staff generally knew the regular customers and, depending on the lines, might spend a bit of time in conversation.     

In a similar fashion, department stores were likely to offer a larger selection of consumer products, organized into sections devoted to shoes, clothing and other supplies. Five & Ten Cents variety stores in Bradford and Wells River were examples of this type.  

In 1967, Bradford historian Harold Haskins described the mercantile profile of that community as a shopping center for area residents. Families made frequent trips to Bradford to take advantage of some of the following: one bank, three automobile agencies, two barber shops, a frozen-food bank, five beauty shops, a dairy, a greenhouse, two fuel dealers, three bottled gas dealers, eight gasoline stations, four plumbers, seven motels and cabins, a laundromat, three-year round restaurants and one summer dining room, a public typing service, and a funeral home.

There was also two doctors, one veterinarian and three dentists. Stores included three chain food stores and four independent, a meat market, three general hardware stores, a Five and Ten store, a men’s furnishing and jewelry, two ladies’ shops, a children’s clothing store, a furniture store, four appliance dealers, a drug store, a television and radio shop, three feed dealers, a state liquor store, two auto parts stores and a mail-order service.

These are in addition to two real estate brokers, three insurance agencies, three painters, four carpenters and builders, two electricians and a woodworking shop.

Growing up in Orford in the late 40s and 50s, my family made frequent visits to Bradford for many of the things we needed.  School shopping meant a visit to Hill’s and Doe Brothers. Bowling alleys and a movie theatre offered entertainment. My parents did their banking in Bradford and stored extra food in the frozen-food bank.

 Stores were open on Saturday night as many people got their paycheck that day. Even when it was changed to Friday night openings, crowds of shoppers made the weekly open night similar to the later Midnight Madness events.    

The four decades that followed saw major changes. Grocery stores became larger in a series of replacements. In 1963, a 5,000-square foot Super Duper opened in the former Bradford bowling allies and then moved to a new store on the Lower Plain. That store later became Grand Union, then P & C and in 2012 was taken over by Hannaford’s. That chain’s new 35,000-square foot store opened in 2012 and serves customers from throughout the area.    

In 1978, Gould’s of Piermont moved from the village to a new store at the corner of Rt 25 and River Road. Before being destroyed by fire in 2000, it also housed Stop & Save and Bronson’s.

Woodsville’s Butson family was involved in grocery sales for one hundred years. Known as People’s Market and later Butson’s, the grocery store occupied several buildings in central Woodsville and in 1985 moved to a new building on Rt. 302.  Shaw’s now occupies that site.

In Fairlee, the closing of the First National allowed Thetford’s Wing’s store to open in 1964 in the Colby Block. Its current store to the south opened in 1995. There continued to be a number of ”mom and pop” convenience stores in villages throughout the area.

In the 1960s, Rockdale’s, a large chain discount department store, opened in one of Lebanon’s abandoned mills. At first, items were often displayed in bins with every effort made to reduce overhead.  It was the beginning of a series of changes that challenged local retailers.

In 1967, a Forest Hills Factory Outlet opened in the former First National warehouse in North Haverhill.  It was replaced by the Ames store in 1975. Ames moved it operation to a new store on Woodsville’s Central Street in 1990. That store closed in 2002. Three years later Ocean State took over the building. Walmart opened its superstore in 2008. 

In 1969, Vermont adopted a sales tax on retail sales. New Hampshire did not, putting Vermont businesses along the boarder at a competitive disadvantage.

By the mid-1970’s, I-91 was extended to St. Johnsbury. That opened larger commercial centers in St. Johnsbury, Littleton and Lebanon to local shoppers. Predictions that Rt. 5 would become abandoned, with grass growing from the cracks did not materialize, but the impact was felt on some area business that could not compete. Areas adjacent to exits became a magnet for new businesses.

Scores of locally owned businesses opened, changed hands or closed during the period after 1964. In some cases, the businesses had served the area for decades.

Newer residents of the area may not recognize the following businesses that have disappeared: Doe’s Brothers, Erskine’s, Wells River’s Five & Ten, Clark’s IGA, Borden Walker-- Furniture King of the Valley, McLam’s Hardware, Hebb’s Store, Grossman’s, Martin’s General Store, Crossroad Pharmacy, Gove & Morrill Hardware, the Groton Village Store, Ryegate’s Corner Store and Perry’s Chrysler-Plymouth dealership.

To that list were numerous restaurants that opened and closed, as is the custom in that type of enterprise.

At the same time, new enterprises have been added. Those include Fogg’s Hardware, Wells River Chevrolet,  Copeland’s Factory Store, Subway, McDonald’s, Farm-Way, Oakes Hardware, Family Dollar, Colatina,  Kinney Drug, NAPA, RiteAid and Valley Floors. Some of these are locally owned either as independents or franchises. In addition to services or products, all  offer employment opportunity to  local residents.   

In 1993, the closing of  Bradford’s Hale’s Furniture and Gove & Bancroft Pharmacy led to suggestions that the business district was “rapidly becoming a ghost town.” The recent changes on Central Street in Woodsville with the loss of Hovey’s and in Bradford with the closing of Hill’s Five & Ten and the departure of Perry’s Oil may, again, raise that specter.

 In response to the earlier rumors, the late Charles Glazer wrote in the Journal Opinion that other businesses  would move in “to take up the slack.”  The opening of Thomson Fuel and the anticipated opening of The Space on Main on October 12 at the same time that North of the Falls is closing seems to indicate a mixed future for Bradford’s Main Street.

Added to the impact of the interstate highway, the Vermont sales tax and the arrival of businesses without close local ties is the rise of the internet. Sites such as Amazon offer a selection of items that even superstores like Walmart may not be able to provide. That leaves local store having to compete both with other local stores and a world of internet offerings.

With all of these forces going against them, it is not unreasonable to expect further changes in local retails. Do not be surprised to see “Going Out of Business” signs on your local favorite store.  Unless you want to share in Dan Mackey’s “pang of regret,” shop locally as much as possible. As one local bank’s radio ad suggests, the dollar spend locally is magnified as it circulates around the community. That was true in times past and remains true still.             


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