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Johnson eager for a new supermarket after summer flooding: 'You can't get butter'

A grocery store is boarded up.
Mitch Wertlieb
Vermont Public
The storefront of the former Sterling Market in Johnson appears boarded up Oct. 17, 2023.

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio, but have provided a transcript below.

It’s been more than three months since last summer’s historic flooding. And there is hope — but so far, there’s been no replacement for the only grocery store in Johnson.

Sterling Market shut its doors for good after suffering heavy damage in July, and the boarded up market now stands as a reminder of a dearly missed community resource.

The owner of the building itself says there’s a new grocer interested in moving in. In the meantime, the closest supermarket is in Morrisville.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb visited Johnson recently on a gray and chilly morning, to speak with some residents about the void left by Sterling’s closing. He started by ducking into Jenna’s Coffee Shop, where he met Lucas Quieroz sharing a bagel and coffee with a friend.

Lucas Quieroz: It's been a bit difficult; it's just not as convenient as it once was.

Because it's like if you want to grab food, I bet the gas station’s like doubled in sales. Yeah, cuz they have a café there — you grab pizza or whatnot. But yeah, your choices are pizza and fried food at the gas station, or you get to drive over to Morrisville.

When you need a loaf of bread, you need a loaf of bread!
Walter Pomroy

Mitch Wertlieb: What are people in town saying about this whole situation? I mean, it seems like you don’t think about a supermarket until something like this happens.

Yeah, 100%. I mean, it's funny too, because the day after the flood, I realized where I bought my car, the bank, where I get my hair cut, and also the the post office as well as the supermarket — all gone. Conveniences you don't really realize you have in a small town, right? But as soon as they were gone, I was like, "Oh my god, I gotta drive an extra 20, which now means 40 minutes, right?" I gotta drive to Morrisville, drive back to get basic conveniences, run to the bank, or, you know, grab a gallon of milk or something you forgot for dinner. So it's just kind of an inconvenience.

Britain Davignon works at Jenna’s, and it’s even tougher for her to get groceries now that Sterling is closed.

Britain Davignon: I don't have a car. And I live right here on Main Street, so Sterling was in walking distance. So immediately, the effects for me and my roommates were felt not being able to access the grocery store readily, like we were able to before. So having to schedule and find a ride, and not always on our timeline when we were able to — on someone else’s timeline. We would just try to carpool. I know that they were offering public transportation, but it didn't always work out with my work schedule and other things I had going on. So it meant learning to plan for longer spans of time in between trips.

I know concerns in the community were about flooding again. Because from what I understand that building — that space — has flooded a few times over the last decade or so. So I'm hoping they'll be able to make it work and get something in there — especially for people that don't have vehicles and families that relied on having a market in their hometown.

Back outside, I ran into David Camley sitting in front of his apartment on Main Street.

David Camley: It's a big effect. The closest grocery store right now is in Morrisville — seven-and-a-half miles away. I know I have no vehicle. The same with a lot of people around here. Don't have transportation. There's no stores.

I work. Part-time retired. I work three days a week. So when I go to work — one of them three days: Wednesday, Thursday or Friday — I stop in Morrisville.

I'm hoping something goes in there real soon. And a lot of people in the community are in the same boat I am. And surrounding areas like Waterville, Belvidere, Eden, North Hyde Park — you gotta go to Morrisville.

And then I guess for like smaller things you can pick up at gas stations or whatever, they’re going to be a lot more expensive, right?

A lot more expensive, yes. I went up to Maplefield’s to get some butter yesterday. They don't sell butter, so you can't get butter. You know they sell bread and milk — no butter [laughs].

My next stop was a children’s clothing boutique called Mud abd Lace, where I spoke with owner Sierra Judd.

I just want to see the community back into its full, thriving self again.
Sierra Judd

Sierra Judd: It was a really hard impact for a lot of people in the community. Me, personally, I had to drive to Morrisville to get my groceries. But you know that one thing of milk you forgot or the eggs or butter — you have to drive to Morrisville versus just going down the street. It’s a little pain in the butt now.

From the local rumor mill, from what I’ve heard is Mac’s Market in Stowe, or Shaw’s supermarket might be coming to town.

Do you care about a certain chain? Does it matter to you, or do you just want to see something replace Sterling? 

I just want to see the community back into its full, thriving self again. You know, what’s good for the community is good for me and vice versa.

Just before I left, I chatted outside with Walter Pomroy, an accountant with an office on Main Street. He who told me he didn’t think of Sterling as just another supermarket.

Walter Pomroy: The Sterling Market was a wonderful, wonderful store. It was kind of a cross between a grocery store and a health food store. And I'm sorry, but the big chains don't do that.

But, I mean, in lieu of anything else, if another big chain came in would that be OK with you?

Yes [laughs]. When you need a loaf of bread you need a loaf of bread! [laughter] And now you have to be organized. You know, usually you just say, "Oh I just I could just walk down the street because I live right there." I could just walk down the street and get my loaf of bread. Now I have to be organized.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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