Preserving the Cracker Barrel Vermont Takes Pride in Rich Mercantile History in Era of Warehouse Shopping

Article excerpt

Name a store in your neighborhood where you can get bread, trout flies, shotgun shells, snow shovels, boots, nails of all sizes, gasoline, your dry cleaning, some stamps, directions to the Interstate, and a homemade pie.

For most Vermonters, that's a no-brainer. They instinctively head to the general store.

America may be increasingly dotted with 7-Elevens and Wal-Marts, but in Vermont the general store represents a way of life, and Vermonters are fighting hard to protect it against the creep of megastores and strip malls. When the arrival of Wal-Mart became inevitable, people here lobbied to have it built in downtown Bennington and not in the countryside, where it could draw customers away from the town center. Meanwhile, two of the state's best-known institutions - the Preservation Trust and the nationally known Vermont Country Store mail-order house - are aiding general stores directly, awarding $3,500 grants to selected stores for improvement. "We need our general stores," says Gov. Howard Dean. "They function as oral bulletin boards." People gather at general stores to discuss the larger issues of the day, such as which roads should be plowed. Protecting the legacy of general stores also makes economic sense here where the 19th century village-scape character is one of the state's greatest economic assets. "Big stores can add a lot of jobs, but they can get rid of a lot of jobs overnight," explains Lyman Orton, owner of the Vermont Country Store. "It's much harder for local owners to do that: They're part of the community." In Norwich, local fire chief Jack Fraser owns Dan & Whit's. "If we ain't got it, you don't need it," reads a hand-lettered sign posted near the back room. Every one of Dan & Whit's 13,000 square feet of sales space is crammed with merchandise. "I can't do what Home Depot does: get a tractor-trailer load full of stuff," Fraser explains. …