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Guilford, Townshend Keep Village Stores Alive

Guilford and Townshend have joined the growing list of Vermont towns where local groups are breathing new life into old village stores.

The stores are part of a new wave of community-supported businesses in Vermont.

The country store in the Guilford village of Algiers has been a gathering place for a long time. The building was a tavern and stage coach stop in the early 1800s.

The name Algiers is a throwback to the legendary card games once played in the building. The Guilford card players won so often that neighboring towns labeled them ‘Algerian pirates’ -- a reference to America’s Barbary Wars against piracy in North Africa.

Guilford resident Fred Humphrey says it would have been a shame to see the old building replaced by a convenience store.

But when the store’s longtime owner died, his widow couldn’t keep the business going.

“She’d apparently had offers from chain stores,” Humphrey says. “But her fear was they’d tear the building down. It would have been a cheaper way to fix it up. And so she came to us and said, ‘Would you people buy it?’”

Humphrey is a member of the Friends of Algiers Village. The nonprofit formed in 2004 and had worked on other projects in Algiers.

The group spent three years pursuing grants and donations to buy and restore the building. The store, which opened this summer, is leased to a couple with a background in catering.

The building also includes apartments and additional commercial space, which should help pay the mortgage and keep the project viable.

Humphrey says the group knew the store couldn’t compete with stores in Brattleboro, a few miles north. But Guilford needed a hub.

“What was missing,” he says, “Was a place for our people in town to gather, to drop in and buy stuff for supper, to see your friends and see your neighbors.”

Paul Bruhn directs the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which worked closely with the Algiers project. Bruhn says the need for community gathering places is a common theme in Vermont.

“People are very passionate about their communities,” says Bruhn. “And they understand the difference between being a community and being a residential subdivision.”

Bruhn says many businesses communities want and need struggle under a normal for-profit model -- which is why he sees a need for what he calls ‘Community Supported Enterprise.’

“What has developed,” he explains, “Is a model that combines charitable capital, community investment and entrepreneurship.  Normally those things happen in their own silos. But this is about putting them all together to help make these businesses work.”

The Preservation Trust has helped many community groups launch businesses. And while they have some common themes, their stories are as unique as the communities they serve.

Thirty miles from Guilford, the West Townshend Country Store is supported by the nonprofit West River Community Project.

A fire that closed the store left a hole in the community that the group has tried for years to fill.

President Clare Adams says the group’s first step was getting the local post office reinstated in the store, where it was before the fire. A series of concerts and a thrift shop brought in people and donations.

“But we always saw some kind of store or café,” Adams says -- “Something around food and local food in particular, because we wanted to support the local farmers, bakers, food producers.”

Then an anonymous local donor bought the store and gave the group a twenty-year lease. That freed the West River Community Project to use its resources to hire a proprietor and stock the shelves.

Next, a Friday farmers market that was relocating  set up shop on the property.

Now the group is planning a professional kitchen for local food producers and its own café.

Adams doesn’t dismiss the importance of good business planning. But she says a community-supported business can also be mission driven. It doesn’t have to make a profit -- it just has to break even.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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