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Just 18 Months After Reopening, Cornish General Store to Close

  • Cornish Road Agent Wayne Gray leaves the Cornish General Store with a cold drink and snack on his way home from work Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. The store announced Sunday that it will close at the end of the month only a year-and-a-half after opening under its current ownership. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shannon Decker, of Plainfield, plays checkers with her son Luke, 5, on the porch of the Cornish General Store in Cornish, N.H., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. The store's managers announced Sunday that it will close at the end of the month, only a year-and-a-half after opening under its current ownership. Monday, September 17, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lynn Schad, of Cornish, stopped in to the Cornish General Store in Cornish, N.H., Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, where she has been a loyal customer under current and previous ownership going back 30 years. She said she visits the store at least a couple times a week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Manager Matt Abrams and proprietor Colleen O'Neill stand in front of the Cornish General Store in Cornish, N.H., on Aug. 18, 2016, before it reopened later in the year. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Cornish Flat — The dream had been to run a country store and revive a once popular meeting spot for the community. But in the end, hope and hard work were not enough to overcome the challenges of running a mom-and-pop store in the Upper Valley.

After 18 months of attempting to revive the Cornish General Store, proprietors Mark Abrams and Maureen Jenks will be closing the business at end of month, leaving the village of Cornish Flat without a retail hub.

“This was not a willy-nilly decision,” Abrams said on Monday. “Although a percentage of the community has been bending over backward to support us, there is more who were not. It isn’t profitable and if you’re not profitable, you can’t grow.”

Abrams and Jenks reopened the Cornish General Store in March 2017. It had been idle since 2013, when the previous owner, Shirley Bladen, retired and closed the store after she couldn’t find a buyer.

Three years later, the property was acquired by Colleen O’Neill, a philanthropist and widow of the writer J.D. Salinger, who lived in Cornish for many years.

O’Neill subsequently entered into an agreement with Abrams and Jenks, whom she met during a class through the nonprofit SCORE, which assists people with business planning. The pair agreed to lease the building from her and operate the store.

On Monday, O’Neill sent a message on the ConnectCornish email network to announce that she was organizing community meetings — one tonight and another on Sept. 23 at the Cornish Meeting House — to solicit ideas for the Old West-style facade building on Route 120.

“I am still committed to doing all that I can to keep a store operating in town,” O’Neill wrote. “In the weeks and months to come, I will be working to find a new operator. First I would like to get feedback from the community at informal meetings.”

O’Neill said she would be “sending out a town-wide survey soon. Your comments and ideas will be very important to me.”

She also thanked Abrams and Jenks for being willing to try what turned out to be a difficult task.

“They worked so very hard to set up and create their Cornish General Store,” O’Neill wrote. “They certainly gave it their best effort.”

O’Neill did not respond to an email seeking comment.

When Abrams and Je nks reopened the store their idea was to recreate the home-town feel of an old general store by selling convenience store staples but also offer updated twists, such as homemade gourmet sandwiches, Friday pizza night, a selection of craft beers, a keg to draw cold-brewed coffee, local produce and seating with tables and Wi-Fi where people could come in and work on their laptops.

But with the exception of Friday pizza night and the craft beer, Abrams said, the mix of offerings did not attract the level of customers required. After a year, they cut the hours by opening later in the morning and closing earlier in the evening to save money, but that wasn’t enough to offset the losses.

Abrams said that part of the problem was that smaller stores are at a disadvantage because they cannot purchase supplies as cheaply as the large markets and therefore have to charge more. The higher prices are a disincentive, even if it means the inconvenience of traveling farther to big-box stores and supermarkets in West Lebanon and Claremont.

“People say they want to buy local but they don’t want to pay local prices,” Abrams said.

As an example, he pointed to a popular item in the Cornish General Store — the Black Angus steak tips.

At Market Basket, it sells for $4.99 per pound, “untrimmed with the grizzle,” Abrams noted.

Even though the steak tips he sells are trimmed of fat and marinated, “I couldn’t buy even the cheapest cut of meat for $4.99 per pound, which is scary,” he said.

Lynn Schad, of Cornish, who had stopped into the Cornish General Store on Monday afternoon to buy milk, beer, cheese and a newspaper, said she was distressed by the news of the store’s closing. She regularly shops at the store “at least a couple times a week” for “anything you might need at the last moment.”

“When the store came back to life we were so happy,” said Schad, who has lived in Cornish for 30 years, explaining that the store was always a reliable place to catch up with people and get the news.

“What do people want?” she said. “These kinds of places are so treasured,” but the store’s closing “is just a mark of the times.”

The store also faced stiff competition from the Meriden Deli-Mart, which reopened in 2009 and sells gas and is only 3½ miles north on Route 120.

For a brief time, the Cornish General Store again became the kind of community gathering place that Abrams and Jenks hoped to foster.

The Boy Scouts sold Christmas trees to raise money for their troop. A class of eighth-grade girls held a potluck dinner as a fundraiser for a class trip. The front porch would be decorated at Halloween for trick-or-treaters.

For Michelle Kerns, the manager, it’s the second closing of the store she has been through — Kerns has worked for three different owners dating back to 2006 and was working at the store when it closed in 2013. The store once did a steady business in selling grain and feed for animals, but people now go to Tractor Supply, she said.

“People need to come in more than once a month for a pound of coffee,” she said.

One factor hurting the Cornish General Store is that it didn’t sell gasoline (it did years earlier before the tanks were removed). Although gas itself is not a money-maker for convenience stores because they make only pennies on the gallon, the pumps nonetheless help to drive customers into the store when they are filling up their cars.

The closing again highlights the difficult time businesses are having in Cornish Flat. In 2015, Claremont Savings Bank closed its branch office there.

Abrams attributed the inability to make a profit to the town’s stagnant population level.

“There’s nothing being built,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that killed it — the lack of growth in the town.”

In recent years some teetering general stores in the Upper Valley have been saved from closing by innovative arrangements.

The Barnard General Store, for example, closed in 2012 and then reopened a year later when community members banded together to raise money and form a nonprofit to buy the building, and new operators were brought in to run the store.

A similar model has been adopted with the Brownsville General Store, where a fundraising campaign bought the property from the bank after it closed and is now in the process of being renovated for a new operator.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.