A Guide to New Hampshire's General Stores
Tour NH's quintessential general stores
For more than 200 years, general stores in New Hampshire have changed with the times. Some closed forever, but dozens survived, adapting form and function to meet the needs of their clientele through generations. Like New Englanders themselves, these businesses are independent, practical and, once situated, seldom removed from their historic foundations.
They vary from the mythic — living exhibits of the general store of the past — to tourist attractions: mercantile Disney Worlds of sorts. Still others serve as suburban way stations — providing hot coffee, a donut and a warm hello to bolster those hitting the highway for a day’s work. And then there are those who have adapted to the times but remain essentially unreconstructed since their beginnings in previous centuries.
But no matter what the manifestation, the best general stores serve as the centers of their communities — a "third place" — neither work nor home but a gathering point, like ancient watering holes, where people come to refresh, converse and warm to the company of others. And did we say eat? That too.
At their beginnings, general — or country — stores transformed scattered farms into communities. There, news was shared, friendships forged and political campaigns conducted in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.
The general store operator offered seed money and goods on credit to the farmers who paid their bills when the crops came in. If the proprietors weren’t willing to give you credit, you were pretty much out of luck.
And while they are no longer ersatz banks, to this day a general store tells you a lot about the neighborhood in which it’s situated and thrives. First, take a look at the bulletin boards, where locals pin up everything from a notice about the latest high school musical to tear-off phone number tabs for dog sitting or guitar lessons.
Quick links to the general stores mentioned in this story:
Calef's Country Store | The Harrisville General Store | The Mont Vernon General Store | The Old Country Store and Museum | Robie's Country Store and Deli | Spolletts General Store | Waterhouse Country Store | The Brick Store
Calef's Country Store – Barrington
And then there’s the clientele. When Elizabeth Landry dropped into Calef’s Country Store in Barrington for lunch on a recent afternoon, she got much more than “the best beet salad in the world” ($2.99 a pound). She got her fix of community. “It’s a tradition,” says the mother of two, who has been going to the store for 25 years. “It was a rite of passage when my kids got old enough to walk to the store themselves after church on Sunday. I love having the store here. It’s a huge part of the community. When the kids walk here, all the neighbors look out for them.”
Calef’s started as a room in the home of local school teacher Mary Calef in 1869 and stayed in the family for five generations. Today it’s owned by Greg Bolton and looks pretty much the same as it has since its inception. The 100-plus-year-old black wood stove at the front of the store was originally in the town’s old school house. There’s still a “penny” candy section, homemade fudge, Calef’s Hot Pepper Jelly, Apple Cinnamon Pancake Mix and even Calef’s Country Store bird feeders — all with the scripted Calef’s logos that date back to its origins.
The store’s particularly proud of its cheddar. Huge wheels of Calef’s Snappy Old Cheese is the special purview of Joel Sherburne, who has worked at Calef’s for 55 years. Calef’s website even has an “Ask Joel” about the cheese section.
Owning a country store is a kind of fantasy, says Bolton, who had a career in the food services industry. “It’s hard work but rewarding. People come in and step back in into the past. A guy came in yesterday and said, ‘I haven’t been here in 35 years but there’s the pickle barrel, just where I remembered.’”
But general stores can’t live on nostalgia alone. Calef’s has successfully established its brand (including the rough calligraphic logo) on a variety of products and has a website so that people from all over the world can have a little bit of that old-time feeling in the form of Calef’s merchandise shipped to their homes.
175 Years Young – The Harrisville General Store
Celebrating its 175th birthday, the Harrisville General Store is said to be the oldest general store still in operation built as a general store. It is so integral to this picturesque town that the nonprofit group, Historic Harrisville foundation, acquired the business five years ago to ensure its longevity. The store is managed by Laura Carden with the help of her mother, baker supreme M’Lue Zahner. There’s so much that draws locals and visitors to the store it’s hard to quantify. There are the authentic bones of the 1838 Greek Revival brick edifice built on top of Church Hill with a shady front porch, overlooking Goose Brook — a mill race — and the brick fairytale village with its perfectly preserved mill buildings.
Inside, thick-planked wooden floors undulate with generation upon generation of foot wear. And there’s the food — the most iconic of which are the homemade cider donuts. It features crafted, homemade food with produce, meat and dairy from local vendors and breads and pastries made on site. The store also has run monthly dinners with recipes based on local availability and seasonally fresh food.
Have an egg salad sandwich at the store and you don’t have travel very far to see the hens that made it all happen.
“It’s a gem that has two purposes,” says Karen Tolman, a trustee at Historic Harrisville. “It serves the needs of the community and as a meeting place.”
The T-shirt says it all. There’s a chicken on the front with the store’s name and on the back in large white letters is the word “Local.”
On the back counter, where visitors plug in laptops to access the free wi-fi, there’s also notebook titled “Store Thoughts” inviting patrons to say what the Harrisville store means to them. One customer wrote: “I love everything about Harrisville G.S.; Laura and M’Lue, the great food, the light, the view, the hot gossip, the daydreaming … Thanks for all the love.” Even children write in the book, like one child who used orange and green markers to say, “I like the general store because my dad went here when he was little with his mom my grandma and she died a couple of months ago … he also brought his dad who was a fire fighter … who fell off a roof on a winter day but he’s still alive.”
The community-owned model which Harrisville developed has been so appealing that the town has been approached by other municipalities in the state for advice.
It solves a lot of problems, including solvency, which newbie general store owner Dan Bellemore, of Goffstown, hopes will not be a problem for him. The Mont Vernon General Store is the only store in this small and incredibly quaint town. But that isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success. Over the past few years others have tried to make a go of it, even sinking lots of money into renovations, but couldn’t make it work.
But Bellemore, who re-opened in May, in time for the town’s Spring Gala, is willing to give it a try with the idea that it’s not a convenience store, but rather a convenient market with a flair, according to store manager Renee Roberts.
Bellemore met Roberts when she was managing a Cumberland Farms in Goffstown.
“We want this to be more than just a place where people go to buy things,” says Roberts, who acts as much as a goodwill ambassador as manager. “When you come in here you might be a stranger but when you leave, you’re a friend. That’s where I come in. It’s the perfect job. I’m living the dream. We have people who drive here, walk here or ride their horses here. There’s one man who comes by on his tractor every day.”
At the new store, a customer can get anything from a bottle of Dom Pérignon Champagne to live bait, aged Stilton to corn chowder mix — or even pick up a nostalgic parachute man toy.
On a recent weekday JoAnn Kitchel of Mont Vernon dropped by for a more pedestrian selection of milk and bread.
“I’m so excited the store reopened," she says. "This is a small town and the general store is everything, especially when a grocery store is so far away.”
There’s also a small kitchen in the back of the shop where at lunchtime, road workers and business people can be seen waiting for Chef Mel Pfeifer to dispense Granite State-inspired sandwiches like the Sarah Josepha Hale — a turkey sandwich with homemade cranberry sauce and Russian dressing, aptly named for the New Hampshire-born editor and writer who helped get Thanksgiving a national holiday — or The Alan Shepard, “… a Reuben which will bring you to the moon and back.”
There's no place like home, true, but for Granite Staters there's also no place quite like the general store.
Touristy Attraction – The Old Country Store and Museum in Moultonborough
The Old Country Store and Museum in Moultonborough is a rural institution that has become as much a Lakes Region tourist attraction as a neighborhood hangout.
The Holden family, which operates the establishment, claims it is the oldest general store in the country and has records dating back to 1781. In addition to its renowned mercantile history, it has also housed a library and the post office and was the site of early town meetings.
A life-size wooden Indian on the front porch beckons shoppers into a maze of merchandise packed in towering shelves that loom over narrow corridors. In addition to the requisite penny candy counter, pickle barrel and store-aged heads of cheese, it displays a breadth of merchandise that boggles the mind. There are large-flapped mad “bomber hats” in leather and plaid, John Deere T-shirts, models, shoes and other “tractormobilia” and a whole room dedicated to candles. There’s cast-iron cookware, maple syrup, hundreds of coffee mugs and New Hampshire tchotchkes, not to mention what seems like an entire toy store within the store.
Community-Owned and Operated – Robie’s Country Store & Deli in Hooksett
*Editor's Note: Sadly, Robie's closed – for now – in the fall of 2013 and it is currently, as of December 2013, up for sale. We sincerely hope that someone buys this New Hampshire landmark and reopens it soon!
Robie’s Country Store & Deli in Hooksett is a prime example of a community-operated and -owned general store. When it closed in 1997, it left such a hole in the community that a nonprofit corporation, Robie’s Country Store Historic Preservation Corporation, was set up to revive the market and meeting place.
Sixteen years later it’s no longer just a gathering spot for locals who pick up supplies and enjoy a leisurely meal in the store’s café, but a must-stop for political candidates as well as tourists who flock to the store to enjoy its collection of political memorabilia.
The original store at the location on the side of the Merrimack River opened in 1820. At the time it stood beside a covered bridge and was a stagecoach stop. It now is situated beside a railroad bridge.
George Robie purchased the store in 1887 and his family operated it for four generations until it closed in 1997. The present clapboard structure was built in 1906 after the previous building burned down.
While the building is owned and maintained by the historic preservation corporation, the business is owned and operated by David and Debra Chouinard. A café with about eight tables serves breakfasts, soups, salads and sandwiches And the walls are decorated with photographs of Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle and other stars who have visited as well as a world-class collection of political buttons, posters, bumper stickers and other political memorabilia with an emphasis of presidential primaries.
Robie’s rings true as a country store, with its worn floors, and comfortable, dusty feel. The owners pride themselves on the hearty, home-cooked food, especially the tubular Robie’s Wraps. Peter Emanuel and his buddies, who operate a recycling business in Bow, come by the store once or twice a month. For the food, they say. “Really, it’s those giant oatmeal cookies and to say hi to Debbie,” says Emanuel.
Proudly Unreconstructed – Spolletts General Store in Chester
Spolletts in Chester is an unreconstructed gem that is the very definition of what we think of as a general store — a family-operated shop that has catered to the needs of its neighborhood for more than 100 years.
“We’re known for our meats,” says Josh Preston, his colorfully tattooed arms draped over the deli counter at the hilltop store on Rte. 102 that he operates with his mother and sister.
And it has always been thus. Samuel Morse opened the store around 1880, primarily as a meat market. It has had several name changes through the decades and retains the name of Perley Spollett, who operated it for several years. The store is now owned by Preston’s mother, Lori Mosonyi, who operates it with the help of her grown children.
Preston is particularly proud of the marinated meats at the store, but that is only the beginning of what the shop has to offer. There are fresh baked goods made by his mother. The apple squares and corn muffins are larger than life and to die for, and Preston’s sister makes designer cakes to order.
Shelves are also stocked with fresh produce, and antique and vintage items not only serve as display but can also be purchased. And you can even pick up a signed book by a local author.
“I think every store has its own personality,” says Preston. “They’re a source of local pride.”
The Waterhouse Country Store in Windham, over the last century, has morphed from a rural outpost to a suburban way station for commuters.
“We’re in a state of transition,” says Dawn Waterhouse, who now operates the store with her sister Dee. They are the fifth generation of the family to operate the store that opened in 1921. Its location on Rte. 111, the main commuting highway to 93, has allowed it to thrive by adjusting to the needs of its customers. The store that once catered to workers at a nearby umbrella factory now has a couple of rows of gas pumps out front. A Honey Dew Donuts franchise offers pastries and coffee as well as egg sandwiches that patrons can enjoy at a handful of tables. Picnic tables beside the store attract travelers and those who just want to enjoy the sunshine.
“But locals still gather here to share the town news,” says Dee. A Seacoast vendor sells fresh seafood on the weekends and the duo is hoping to establish a farmers market. Until recently the store also housed a fried chicken franchise and an ice cream stand. They hope to find a partner to reopen the restaurant and maybe even reopen the ice cream window.
Into the Mythic – The Brick Store in Bath
The Brick Store in Bath is a mythic mercantile on the Ammonoosuc River* that claims to be the oldest continuously operating general store in the country and has the papers to prove it: a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Owners Mike and Nancy Lusby were attracted to the brick-walled establishment that opened in the 1790s, all the way from the West Coast. He was an executive in Silicon Valley; she was an administrator at a research laboratory. They bought the store and moved into the apartment over the shop after seeing an ad for the store in 1992. “We looked at more than 50 properties in a number of states, but were drawn to the Brick Store by the opportunity to become a part of the history,” Mike Lusby says. “We’re known for our fudge and our smoked meats and cheeses (his brother, Jim, smokes 1,000 pounds of meats and cheeses every week, and Nancy churns out fudge in 140 different flavors.)
The store is visited by about 500 buses every foliage season and they have an Internet presence. You can order penny candy, pancake mix and bacon fudge pops, or even join the fudge of the month club at thebrickstore.com. “We have 10,000 subscribers,” says Mike.
The Brick Store has groceries, clothing, drinks and gifts for tourists as well as pickles and other country store staples. “We’re still a hub for the little town and people congregate here even though there is a Wal-Mart four miles down the street.”
*An earlier version of the story misidentified the river as the Connecticut River.