The Maple Corner Store has stood in the center of Calais since the 1800s and remains an important community touchstone, providing Calaisians with a place to gather in times of crisis and celebration, a shelter for school children to keep warm while waiting for the U-32 bus, a market to purchase milk and eggs, and a venue for bluegrass music at the attached Whammy Bar.
Residents, however, do not take it for granted, as they’ve watched small general stores across Vermont struggle and eventually close. Fears intensified in mid-2017, when current owners Artie and Nancy Toulis planted a for-sale sign outside the store, and potential buyers failed to appear and pluck it.
The solution was to adopt a more cooperative approach, transforming the private business into the “Maple Corner Community Store,” with locals purchasing shares. While the store will not become a co-op in the strictest legal sense—because some members are able to purchase enough shares to control more than 10 percent of the business—it will resemble a co-op in other respects.
“No matter how many shares you own or no matter how much equity you have in the business, you just get one vote. One vote, one person,” affirmed Anne Marie Shea, manager of the current store and soon-to-be general manager of the Maple Corner Community Store. “That was a big thing we felt very strongly about throughout the whole process.”
The total needed to succeed in this effort is $450,000, which will cover the $375,000 asking price for the store, plus inventory, closing costs, and lawyer fees. If the store is able to raise up to $600,000, it will go toward much-needed projects such as an expanded septic system and updated kitchen equipment.
As of November 12, the store counted 150 pledges, “which, assuming they all are honored, will put us very close to being able to buy the store this year!” according to its website.
Shares cost $500 and can be purchased by anyone over 21 at maplecornercommunitystore.org and the store itself until December 31. Although the community store is hopeful that dividends will be issued in the future, it is not something that can currently be guaranteed.
Community members and long-distance supporters who want to contribute, but not play an ownership role, can still chip in. “We have an arrangement with the Maple Corner Community Center, and people can make donations to them that are tax deductible,” explained Jamie Moorby, who will become one of two assistant managers in the new iteration. According to the Maple Corner Community Center’s website, “Funds earmarked for the store will be held in escrow until the sale goes through, and then will be transferred to the Maple Corner Community Store in exchange for equity shares which would be held in perpetuity by the Community Center.”
Seeking more clarity on how the new store should operate, the Maple Corner Community Store Board explored different business models of Vermont’s general stores. One of the inspirations is the successful Brownsville Butcher & Pantry.
“We went there to speak with the person who is the lead investor of the whole project and checked out the store and what they’re doing because they have a similar setup,” Shea said, “They do the coolest stuff. It was really beautiful and inspirational.”
In addition, Moorby will use her five years of experience from working at the Glut Food Co-op in Maryland. “What we’ve learned is that everyone who’s done it has done it a little differently, and it’s really key to tailor the process to your individual community.” she reflected.
Changes to the actual store will be modest. The Whammy Bar will remain largely unchanged. Moorby also said that for the foreseeable future, the post office will also stay where it is. “They are relatively early in a five-year contract,” Moorby noted.
Moorby and Shea feel confident that they can take on the challenge of running the store. Shea has been working at the store for 10 years, and Moorby has had a life-long relationship with it, having grown up across the street and worked there as a 14-year-old. With the addition of Caity Kaye, the second assistant manager, the trio forms the core leadership group. “We’ve been doing this every day for years. We know what we’re doing,” said Shea.
To continue their fundraising process, the Maple Corner Community Store is having a silent auction, which will hopefully go public within the next week, according to Shae. A number of community contributors have donated artwork, services, and compost. Bidding will be open for three weeks. A table at Maple Corner’s craft show at the community center on December 7, 9:30 am to 3 pm, will also accept bids.
The silent auction finishes at 4 pm on December 13, during the celebratory launch party of the new store. There is no official opening date of the new store yet.