Jim Kenyon: Coburns’ General Store closing up shop however long it takes

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    Melvin Coburn, co-owner of Coburns' General Store, laughs after Martha Fisk, of Sharon, Vt., hands him a bag of donuts she made. Patti Morgan, right, of South Strafford, Vt., asked if she could have one. "He don't share," Fisk said, which created more laughter. Morgan works at the store but was shopping on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 6/18/2022 10:06:50 PM
Modified: 6/18/2022 10:06:30 PM

Like many Strafford residents, retired school teacher Joey Hawkins was taken aback when she read on the town Listserv this spring that Coburns’ General Store was for sale.

“I started to cry,” she told me. “It’s hard to imagine Strafford without Coburns’.”

The Coburn family has owned the town’s general store for 45 years. Located on Route 132 in Strafford’s lower village, the white clapboard store dates back to the late 1800s.

With a magazine rack that includes TV Guide and Soap Opera Digest, the store in some respects is a time capsule. But just around the corner from a display of scenic Vermont postcards, a beverage cooler is stocked with craft beer. A nearby shelf offers gluten-free flour.

The meat counter in the back features boneless pork roast, corned beef and stir-fry chicken pieces. In a pass through the hardware department, I came across plastic tarps, shovels and toilet seats.

Melvin and Sue Coburn, who run the store with the help of their daughter, Chrissy Jamieson, have tried to reassure people in the town of 1,100 that they have no intentions of shuttering the business.

“We’ll keep it going until it sells,” Melvin told me last week.

But it’s understandable that townspeople are nervous about what the future holds. In the last two decades, Vermont has lost more than 100 country stores, The Boston Globe reported in April.

The influx of big-box stores and mega supermarkets, particularly on the New Hampshire border, have taken a toll. Convenience store chains are also cherry picking, buying up or squeezing out traditional general stores in prime locations.

Strafford residents point to neighboring Sharon, where the general store is now part of a chain, and after a makeover has the charm of a New Jersey Turnpike rest area.

“That’s what has people worried,” said Steve Marx, the town’s health officer, who had stopped by fill up his gas tank Wednesday afternoon. “We don’t want that.”

I suppose the emotional attachment that people in small towns have to their general stores can be written off as folks clinging to the past. (My hometown had two general stores when I was growing up.)

But they aren’t for just picking up bread and milk between weekly shopping trips to bigger — and often less costly — supermarkets.

Coburns’ is home to the South Strafford post office and a Mascoma Bank branch. (Rental income from the two tenants is a selling point.)

Coburns’ Wash and Dri laundry in the basement is open seven days a week. It’s not a “big moneymaker,” Melvin said. But for residents who must do without a washer and dryer at home or whose wells run dry in the summer, it’s a valuable community asset.

Hawkins, who taught at Strafford’s K-through-8 Newton School for 25 years, described Coburns’ as the town’s “social glue.”

The Strafford Community Food Shelf is run out of the store. The nonprofit collects cash donations to help people down on their luck buy groceries at Coburns’. They can shop twice a month, picking up $75 to $100 in groceries each time.

A fuel club that Melvin started 35 years ago has about 250 members. Working with an Upper Valley fuel company, the club uses its group buying power to get lower prices on propane and heating oil.

“Coburns’ is far more valuable than the sum of its parts,” Hawkins said.

The store, which employs a dozen people, is often the first job for teens who stock shelves and work the cash registers.

The store is open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding,” Sue said.

Sue and Melvin live across the street, which is convenient. Melvin gets to the store at 5:30 in the morning before delivery trucks start rolling in.

“It was always my dream to own a general store,” said Melvin, whose parents moved from Vershire to Strafford in the early 1900s.

In 1977, Melvin and his older brother, Phil, who was working at the Hanover Co-op, bought the store, which had fallen on hard times.

It was rough going in the beginning. When the Corburns applied for a state liquor license, they were turned down. The store didn’t meet the state’s minimum requirement of having $1,000 of inventory on its shelves. “That’s how bad it was,” Phil said.

Forty-five years later, the store has a wine department that takes up five shelves.

Other than family members, cashier Deanna Race’s 23 years at the store makes her the longest-tenured employee. As difficult as it might be for some residents to accept change, she’s happy for the Coburns. “They work 12 hours a day and weekends,” Race said. “They deserve time for themselves.”

Melvin turns 78 in August. Sue will be 77 in September. Phil, 86, and his wife, Shelby, have already retired from the store’s daily operations.

Jamieson isn’t interested in continuing the family tradition. She has children and grandchildren she wants to spend more time with.

The goal is to find a buyer — hopefully, another family — to take over. “The hope is that whoever buys it will keep it the same,” said Brian Johnson, a member of the town’s Selectboard who was in the store Wednesday buying nuts and washers for a table saw.

If a suitable buyer can’t be found, there’s early talk of Strafford doing something along the lines of what happened in Barnard, where a community trust was created in 2012 to save the troubled general store. The nonprofit raised nearly $650,000 to purchase the store, which is now operated by independent leaseholders.

The Coburns have set an asking price of $1.5 million. They’ve had a few inquiries, but no offers yet.

And if the sale takes a while and the store remains in the Coburns’ steady hands a bit longer?

I’m sure Strafford residents won’t mind.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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