Our Country Stores
Brie and caviar or beer and ammo. What makes a general store today?
Jessica Holcomb acquired the Mill River General Store last year.
Photos by Matt Petricone
On a frigid morning this winter, the new proprietor of the Mill River General Store, open since 1840, steps outside for a smoke. She is Jessica Holcomb, a gregarious 30-something brunette known in town as Jess. Holcomb exhales in the frozen air and explains how she “fell into” her new life behind the counter. Born near Boston, she has been coming to the Berkshires since she was little. After her father retired to the area, Holcomb and her husband decided to move to Mill River for good.
“We were looking for a house and we found a general store,” says Holcomb. A former bartender, she acquired the business last April from Dave Herrick, who had owned it since 1992. If this particular weekday morning is any indication, Mill River has embraced the modest changes she’s made—a deep cleaning, new menu items in the café, a few more groceries in the lineup. Residents stream in for the mail (the store is also the local post office), a newspaper (she sells 35 copies a day, twice that in summer), coffee, and chitchat. “They make it a social occasion, a spot to see the neighbors,” says Holcomb, before excusing herself for the start of the lunch rush.
Holcomb’s new old-timey New England general store is among the more traditional of the dozen or so left in the Berkshires. All of them are dogged survivors. Once hubs of small-town life, general stores have become increasingly marginal in the face of 21st-century competition from full-service supermarkets, big-box retailers, and Amazon home delivery. Holcomb, for one, seems to have found the secret: suit the store to the town. For a general store to succeed, it has to get people through the door—whether they come for Wonder Bread or caviar, as railroad heir and Rhode Island governor William Vanderbilt, onetime owner of Five Corners grocery store in South Williamstown, once described the range of his eclectic offerings.
General stores in the Berkshires typically change hands when a longtime owner retires, as in Mill River, or a newcomer fails. The latest failure is in Monterey, where the store dates to 1780. Departing proprietor Scott Cole closed his doors the end of December after a five-year run. Residents never rallied to his stylized “country chic” establishment of brie sandwiches, imported toiletries, and $19 jarred artichoke hearts, and the coffee-and-gossip crowd migrated up Highway 23 to Roadside Café. Despite warmer support from free-spending visitors, Cole couldn’t cover loan payments and forfeited the keys. (Cole declined comment.) His predecessor, Monterey selectman Kenn Basler, who ran the store from 2006 to 2011, says small owner-operators have a tough go, any way you look at it.
“It’s a lifestyle and a 24/7 occupation,” says Basler, who looks back on his storekeeper stint with philosophical detachment. He recalls successful startup years, selling up to 80 sandwiches a day at an average cost of about $6 each, but lunch sales “disappeared” during the 2008 recession. Basler knew groceries from his career at Trader Joe’s, and in Monterey he tried to stock supplies for second-homeowners, who accounted for 60 percent of sales, as well as long-term residents. But grocery sales faced the brutal reality of high costs and low turnover, leading to losses from expired foods. “Even in the best years I had, it was always just making it,” Basler says.
Despite the grim odds, buyers appeared almost instantly when the Monterey General Store came back on the market last fall. In fact, the listing agent bought it. Otis-born realtor Tim Lovett, co-founder of Berkshire Property Agents in Great Barrington, will own the store with Irish barman Fin Hanley, a gregarious presence at Café Adam and the duo’s designated operating partner.
They plan to stock traditional grocery essentials—“bread and batteries,” says Hanley, with some fancier supplies at the height of summer’s picnic-and-party season—and serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner with full bar service. From there, they will see how things evolve, taking ideas from a planned suggestion box. Like Holcomb in Mill River, Hanley and Lovett have a cheery belief in running the general store as a community’s social center. What they don’t have is an actual business plan.
“You wouldn’t do one of these businesses if you ran the numbers,” says Lovett, adding dryly, “it’s not a cash cow.”
“We’ll give it a go,” adds Hanley in his musical brogue, “and we’ll figure it out.”
Other general stores that have flipped ownership since 2000 have moved away from traditional retail/grocery offerings altogether. The Southfield Store, built around 1907 and acquired in 2007 by Peter Platt and Meredith Kennard, owners of New Marlborough’s Old Inn on the Green, is a store in name only.
“We bought it from the person responsible for converting it from a general store into something else,” recalls Kennard. “And we turned it into something else again.”
The previous owner had attempted a retail shop with wine and expensive gifts. Platt and Kennard needed the building as a bakery for their fine-dining restaurant at Old Inn. Running the front as a casual restaurant made financial sense. Summertime dinners attract as many as 70 customers a night; brunch can do double that. As for offering groceries in the manner of a “real” general store, Kennard has neither the space nor the interest. “I don’t want to sell a roll of toilet paper. It’s a very, very hard way to make a living.”
The Store at Five Corners in South Williamstown, which dates to 1770 and claims to be the oldest such business in North America, hasn’t entirely given up on groceries. One corner of the store features a window dressing of frou-frou cheese, kombucha on tap, and jars of tapenade. Still, two-thirds of store revenues are generated by an in-store café selling Barefoot Contessa–style comfort food: quiche, roast chicken, lasagna, and Linzer cookies. It attracts Williams College students and faculty, weekend skiers, and even a few native-born residents who once attended the now-closed schoolhouse next door. (The business has seemingly rebounded from initial public outrage that greeted current owner Frank Lewis, a wealthy businessman, when he closed shop for a time in 2011 to retool.) Under current management, the store attempts its own version of Vanderbilt’s “Wonder Bread and caviar” scheme. The breakfast menu includes a $3 breakfast sandwich, while the wine section holds $310 bottles of Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon.
Whether such bipolar merchandizing refutes or bolsters the commonplace observation that the Berkshires has two populations—rich visitors who shop at Guido’s and hardworking locals who shop at Price Chopper—seems open to debate.
But, either way, it may well be the right strategy for a 21st-century general store in Berkshire County. Back in Mill River, Holcomb also subtly caters to multiple demographics. The scrub-top counter beside the cash register holds a country-cousin selection of candy, cigarettes, and ammunition. But if you poke around the store a bit, you’ll also find a 14-year old bottle of Scotch for $92, local grass-fed meats, and organic American Spirit cigarettes next to the Marlboro Lights. Holcomb offers various necessities for a varied public—the very definition of a general store.
As towns in the Berkshires change, so change the general stores. Owners have to keep up or step aside. As Holcomb says, “we’re just the keepers.”
For a list of general stores: townvibe.com/country