The Falls General Store in Northfield Falls will reopen under new ownership on July 2. The new proprietors, Vincent and Norma Rooney, are poised to offer Northfield residents a grocery of a sort the town has never before seen.
After 26 years in the technology sector, the Patchogue, NY (a village on Long Island) couple decided in 2010 “to live out our dreams,” Norma told The Bridge. “We’re both foodies. Big foodies.” The couple purchased the ramshackle building at the corner of Route 12 and Cox Brook Road in September of that year, five months after the prior owners had closed the doors.
First on the Rooneys’ agenda was the structure per se. “The building was collapsing in on itself,” Vince recalled. “The floor was wavy. The engineers were afraid of walking on the second floor.” Fifty-two lolly posts in the basement remedied the instability. Other upgrades ranged from a new septic system and a restaurant-standard kitchen, to the restoration of the consoles on the big rectangular structure’s false-front facade, providing a touch of country-village elegance.
The renovation began in June 2011 and was not substantially complete until the end of last year. Norma declined to specify how much money she and her husband had put into the project, describing the sum simply as “a lot.”
The couple used local sources and local contractors as much as possible in restoring the building, they said, and that orientation will carry over into the enterprise’s operations. “Natural as much as possible, local as much as possible, non-GMO as much as possible,” Norma said, summarizing the couple’s marketing approach.
The couple clearly envision something a large step beyond the general stores of yesteryear. While the carpenters were pounding their building back together, the Rooneys were studying at New York’s International Culinary Center, honing their expertise in such things as French pastry making, culinary chocolate and Italian cuisine. Norma said that “a part of the business will be coming straight from the kitchen,” featuring breakfast, lunches and take-out dinners with an international flavor. The establishment will also carry groceries of course. “It’ll be like a small co-op,” she put it.
“We’re looking for food items that have as little ingredients as possible—not overly processed, more local, more organic or natural. We’re not going to be able to fill the store with just that and be able to sustain ourselves, but our primary mission is to provide good healthy products, the kind of products that we would use in our own cooking like a good selection of fine condiments, good cheeses, good grains and cereals, environment-safe soaps,” Norma explained.
She said that she and her husband, in planning their store’s launch, had conferred with staff at both Hunger Mountain Coop and Burlington’s City Market cooperative, all of whom expressed support for the couple’s venture.
The Rooneys are the ninth party to own the store since one Albert Cross erected the building in 1892. The ownership changes have been especially frequent in recent decades, as the store has suffered the slings and arrows that have beset many a village store across the state and country.
The ailments that afflict general stores—which is to say, that afflict the culture of the local—need not be fatal however, and both affected communities and entrepreneurs have in recent years proffered creative solutions when village stores are shuttered. In Peacham, a community effort, according to the project’s website, is seeking “to create a financially sustainable, community-supported café and store . . . that meets the community’s needs for a local eatery, gathering place, and staple grocery” in a building donated by the town. In 2013, having cobbled together a half-million dollars, community members in Barnard purchased that town’s general store, which had gone out of business. The community maintained a café and gathering place, staffed initially by volunteers, in the store until bonafide operators were found to lease the 180-year-old building and run a full-service grocery in it. Today, a year later, the operators “are doing very well,” says Tom Platner, secretary of the Barnard Community Trust, the building’s owner. “They’re making a profit.”
Platner cautions, however, against orienting a store towards a niche market, such as natural or gourmet foods.
“It’s too easy to focus on your own tastes in food. You’ll be cutting out a reasonable percentage of the town. You have to cater to the general public in a general store. Tree huggers and loggers—we all gotta get along.”
In other words, it’s a tough business. According to the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, 18 Vermont general stores closed their doors between 2008 and 2013, while another seven were repurposed as other businesses. The dismal trend may be turning around, however. Within the last year, stores in West Topsham and West Hartford have served their last patrons, but stores in Guilford and Peru, as well as the Barnard establishment, have reopened,association president Jim Harrison reported.
“We’re a very mobile society,” Harrison explained regarding the tribulations that village stores have endured, or succumbed to. “Years ago we shopped and did all our business locally, at the village store, and every year we’re getting more and more mobile.”
Notwithstanding Platner’s admonition, a carefully calibrated market niche seems a typical attribute of revived village stores, as does community initiative. While the Falls General Store presents an exception to the community-driven model, it epitomizes the former feature, embracing new marketing styles and emphases. Hardware, overalls and white bread, at the Falls store as elsewhere, are yielding to craft beers, espresso and the latest in grab-and-go cuisine. Whether in Northfield Falls, Barnard or Peacham, the new generation of country stores will bear only limited resemblance to their antecedents from the 19th or even 20th century. As novelist Thomas Wolfe put it, you can’t go home again, for home has changed.