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Snowsville, Not Yer Average General Store
by Stephen Morris
(In a nation that finds a Dollar Store in every strip mall, Snowsville General Store has been keeping the flame of independence burning since 1830. Just for the sake of comparison, Wal-Mart was founded in 1962. SM)
I have photos to accompany this, but I don't know if anyone will want to run it. I like it, because it tells the story of the trials of the independent retailer from a different angle. SM2033 words
You won't find the New York Times at the Snowsville General Store. You won't find a Panini sandwich or a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. And forget about cappuccino, micro brewed beers, and anything resembling designer clothing.
You will, however, find a t-shirt that defines "Vegetarian" as "an old Indian word for poor hunter." You will also find a Round Oak stove that has been churning out BTUs since before the first World War. You will also find perhaps the finest selection of muzzle loaders in Vermont.
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"Real" is a word that quickly comes to mind as you survey the area that is officially East Braintree, Vermont, but known locally as Snowsville. The name derives from Jeremiah Snow who established a grist mill and sawmill on the banks of Ayers Brook back in the early 1800s. The store was established in 1830.
Several of the surrounding houses date from the same era as does the Congregational Church of Christ, a white clapboard structure with a spire that defines Yankee inspiration. It's small but dedicated congregation meets seasonally from June to September, but the structure provides stark inspiration year-round.
The houses, about a dozen, are clustered tightly around an S-curve where Route 12 intersects Ayers Brook. The houses are battened down for winter. Some are swathed in plastic to keep out the north wind. Others are protected by tar paper or hay bales. It's not the Vermont you will see on a calendar.
Booska is a Vermonter who hails from the Champlain Valley. He worked, mostly construction, in the family business until he was ready for a change. He was immediately attracted to Snowsville because it dovetailed so well with his love of hunting. That was more than twenty years ago. Does he get out into the woods during the season any more?
He answers with a thin smile. Booska, 61, is quiet and burly, a combination that can appear menacing, until you realize that dry, Yankee humor is one of the store's most important products. John O'Donnell, a resident of nearby West Brookfield, tells of going down one Sunday morning to buy a quart of milk. Just before ringing him up, one of the regular customers who always seem to be present, asked "Would you like a shotgun with that?"
As you enter the store, the cash register is immediately to the left. Straight ahead is the Round Oak stove that appears to have been burned continuously for the past half century or so. Booska holds court at the register. A seat across the counter is reserved for one of the regulars. It's a setting that suggest a television talk show, but one with a hardscrabble twist. Opinions are in no short supply.
Today's "guest" is East Braintree resident Ron Widen who answers the perfunctory "How are you today?" with the pronouncement "I'm pissed off!" He has just made the 15 mile round-trip into Randolph to fill a prescription at the Rite-Aid Drug Store in vain. The store was open, but its pharmacy closed. (The store's difficulty in finding qualified pharmacists has been front page news of late.)
"If a store's opening hour is 8 am, seems to me they should be open at 8 am," says Widen. Booska, who "mans" the store with his partner Kris Day from 8 am to 6 pm, six days a week and seven during hunting season and the holidays, nods his agreement.
"And if a store's open, everything in there should be for sale, not just the things they want to sell you." Amen.
Political candidates in Vermont should be required to spend a day at the Snowsville General Store, not talking, but listening. They might not like what they hear. Booska states flatly that politics "makes my blood pressure go even more out of sight," a statement that draws murmurs of assent from those within earshot. The consensus seems to be that politicians exist mainly to raise taxes, send jobs to go overseas, and generally make it difficult for the average person to get by.
Getting by isn't easy in East Braintree, even if you own the general store. Unlike the gleaming new Cumberland Farms in Randolph, there's no steady stream of cars needing gas, no packs of teenagers heading to and from the high school, no constant demand for soda, beer, milk, cigarettes, and lottery tickets. The gas pumps at Snowsville were removed nearly 20 years ago. Once the Interstate was built, there was no longer any through traffic on Route 12.
The only other commercial businesses in town are also testaments to stubborn Yankee independence. The Acme Carriage Works builds and restores horse-drawn carriages. The company owner, Fred Merriam, also operates the Vermont Bell Company, one of the few manufacturers of sleigh bells in the country. In keeping with Snowsville tradition of independence he also mills his own lumber. The scraps are sold for $2 a bag at the General Store.
Booska, too, has had to diversify, but unlike many general stores in Vermont, it has not been to cater to the needs of the state's second home community. He stays focused on the needs of East Braintree residents. He sells firewood. A small mountain of hardwood logs is in the lot next to the store. In the fall Booska spends as much time outside as possible, wearing hardhat and ear protection as he tries to get as much bucked up as possible before the snow arrives.
In addition to wood, he sells used cars, a small selection lined up on the opposite side of the store as the logs. You won't find anything low-slung or with leather seats. These are East Braintree cars. Some rust, runs good. He also has a small tractor and will hire out for any number of earth movement or snow removal jobs.
And he sells guns.
Snowsville stocks more than 400 handguns and rifles. The selection includes hand guns and rifles, new and used, vintage and collectible, from a pink single shot .22 caliber designed for kids to a semi-automatic assault rifle. Asked about the ethics of selling firearms that are not for sporting purposes Booska says simply "My goal is to have the best selection possible." His thoughts on gun control laws? "Only honest people obey regulations."What he doesn't say is as important as what he does.
People come from great distances to ogle the selection at Snowsville. Fathers bring their sons to buy their first deer hunting rifle. They come to talk guns with knowledgeable people like Gene and Ron (not an employee, but retired from the firearms business and always willing to contribute helpful advice). Sometimes female customers are more comfortable talking with Kris. Snowsville even sponsors a handgun safety class especially for women.
Widen says that Snowsville's reputation is well-deserved. "Gene has good knowledge of what people are buying in this area. For instance, there isn't much demand for shotguns around here, while in parts of New Hampshire, that's all people want. And it changes all the time."
He cites Winchesters as an example of changing fashions in the gun trade. Both he and Booska agree that Winchesters used to be hot, but are now slipping in popularity compared to firearms made by Martin or Savage. They also agree on the reason why.
"You can't even get a Winchester made in this country any more," says Widen. He takes off his John Deere cap and wipes his brow. He's not pleased with this fact. Production of the Winchester repeating rifles, known as "the gun that won the West," was discontinued in 2006 when their manufacturing facility in New Haven, Connecticut was permanently closed. Like the Fender guitar or Tubbs snowshoes, another American icon has been outsourced.
Gene Booska laughs when asked if he wishes either of his daughters will follow him into the business. "They're too smart for that," he says. One is a controller, the other works in the admissions department of a local college, jobs that provide them with paid holidays, vacations, and health care. unimaginable luxuries for the self-employed. It's hard to picture who, at 61, would want to be working the long hours and spending days bucking up firewood as Gene Booska does. And yet, since 1830 there has been a store keep willing to tend to the needs of the East Braintree community.
Vermont is in the midst of a "locavore" revolution, in which all things local are celebrated and supported. Word of the revolution, however, has been slow to reach East Braintree. Booska dropped many of his clothing lines when the manufacturers began shipping lower quality goods from overseas, focusing now on quality products from the Johnson Woolen Mill. Quality can be a difficult sell, however, in a community where people don't have a lot of extra money. "People can be penny-wise and dollar foolish," says Booska. "They will buy a shirt for three dollars that lasts a month rather than one for six dollars that will last two years."
To illustrate he tells about the customer who asked the price of a bag of popcorn:
"I told him 99 cents, and he says 'I can get it in Randolph for 69 cents.'" Booska pauses and makes a small shrug. What he doesn't say is as important as what he does.
"So he gets into his car and drives the 15 miles into town and comes back with his 69 cent bag popcorn." Booska doesn't even need the punch line–that a round trip into town costs several times the savings. Vermont humor.
Luckily, the concept of local can cut both ways. The store now has a website that makes it convenient for gun enthusiasts from all over to see what's in stock. The store enjoys a widespread cult status. "Just yesterday a woman called from Washington state and ordered a Snowsville hooded sweatshirt to be sent to her son in Alaska," says Booska. Also, Vermont's biggest export, its youth, often return at holiday time for Christmas shopping. One former resident, now a musician in Manhattan, was recently pictured in a fashion pictorial in the New York Times wearing his red plaid hunting cap from Snowsville.
Every local resident has a story or anecdote that underscores the store's important role in the community fabric. One tells of having car problems during a snowstorm. Not only did Booska offer refuge, but he fixed her car. John O'Donnell inquired about the hunting season one day and went home with free venison. His wife, Tina, once went in for Parmesan cheese. The store was out, but Kris Day went upstairs and loaned her some from her own pantry.
"If you look past the cheese doodles," says Nancy Reid, an elementary school teacher who has lived in the area since the late 1970s, "Snowsville seems to have the products that are essential to life."
Booska's success is his ability to bridge the gaps. "The community around here is sparse, but surprisingly diverse," says John O'Donnell, a physics professor at nearby Vermont Technical College. "I may be a deer hunter, but I always feel welcome."
This doesn't happen at Wal-Mart, despite the perfunctory greeting at the front door, but it happens every day in East Braintree, and it has been happening every day since 1830. When Wal-Mart opened its first store in 1962, Snowsville had been in business 132 years. The landscape changes quickly in business, not so quickly in East Braintree. If you have to bet which–Snowsville or Wal-Mart–will be around a hundred years from now, bet on Snowsville.
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