Felix Carroll: What is it about shelf life of a general store?


This story has been modified to correct the name of Tim Lovett, the real estate listing agent.

MONTEREY — Anyone interested in buying a general store? They've got one for sale here: cheap, quaint as can be, historic, with Hollywood good looks (though the roof has a leak).

Imagine the possibilities: You could work seven days a week, not get rich and have half the town disdain you.

This wasn't quite what Scott Cole had in mind when he stepped behind the counter in 2012 to begin the latest failed tenure of the town's only store. Leaving behind what he calls "a venomous gossip pool," Cole disengaged from his mortgage, shut out the lights and pulled out of town in December, opting instead for a simpler life as an innkeeper in Richmond.

A promising plan to reopen this spring has since fallen through once the prospective new buyers were exorcised of any and all romantic notions of running a general store.

While the building is on the market for $198,000, the town once again collectively strokes its chin and ponders the existential questions of what went wrong, what would this town of less than 1,000 souls support in the future and what even constitutes a viable general store in 21st-century Berkshire County.

To one degree or another, the county's dozen or so remaining general stores all have confronted the latter question.

Ask Heather Anello-Spencer, owner of the Becket General Store, where the motto used to be, "If we don't have it, you don't need it." Now, the motto is, "What do you need?"

After taking over the Becket business in 2011, Anello-Spencer quickly realized that relying on the sales of classic country store merchandise like fishing tackle, flashlights, dry yeast, stationery and baby bottles would guarantee her hasty demise. She has since impounded such products to the back, replacing them with tables, chairs, a bar, scratch tickets, fresh baked goods and a menu that includes quinoa and meatballs.

"Cheap, hot, home-cooked food on the fly," she said, by means of advice to any would-be general store proprietors in Monterey. "If you can't do that, give in before you go bankrupt."

Also: "Don't ever give up on the locals, and make sure they're your priority or you will not make it."

Jessica Holcomb, who took over the Mill River General Store a year ago and supplemented the basics with specialty foods, agrees.

"It's a difficult business. It's almost like a lost art to run a general store," she says "This is not a `you-got-it-all-figured-out business.' You're always listening to your customers."

In Monterey, a rural hilltown whose well-heeled, part-time population comprises a full two-thirds of residences, its general store — set in a tiny village between a tiny library and tiny post office — bears an outsize, unfair and unsolicited responsibility as arbiter of the town's identity.

Many have given the business a go, many have failed, and everyone else has an opinion.

In some ways, Cole's stewardship of the general store — a business that dates to 1780 — became a case study in the virtues and vices of small-town life, whereby in times of crisis, residents band together, and in times of ease, residents drive each other up the wall.

When the store went dark in 2001 after a 20-year stint by Maynard Forbes ("It's a very, very difficult business," Forbes says), a group of residents brainstormed. The result, in theory, was that people would pitch in to purchase it. They would find someone to run it with the condition that the proprietor would eventually buy it outright. Instead, what happened was that a kindly, charitable woman named Helen Boehm, along with her husband, Riccardo, suddenly found herself the owner of a general store.

"Everyone was going to throw in money," she says, "but at the end of the day, we were the only ones who did."

She held the mortgage for Kenn Basler when he ran the store from 2004 until 2011, closing for financial reasons. She held it for Cole, too, with the agreement that Cole would pay her a lump sum after five years. He was to buy it for $275,000.

Instead of the lump sum, she now has a lump in her throat, figuratively speaking. It has been emotional.

"I just want someone to buy it and to be done with it," says Boehm, an author and psychologist who no longer even has a home in Monterey. She lives in Florida.

Plenty of people have been looking at it, says the broker, Tim Lovitt of Monterey. Among those were Tim Lovett of Monterey. Indeed, he and his partner, Fin Hanley, had everyone's hopes up when they announced this year that they would be purchasing the store and transforming it into an operation best described as "general store-ish" — something akin to that of Anello-Spencer's operation in Becket. They've backed out for various, personal reasons, including: "I imagined myself washing dishes at midnight rather than on the computer looking for homes for people," Lovitt says.

Mark Firth, a Monterey resident and owner of The Prairie Whale restaurant in Great Barrington, says he's interested. But among the many challenges are the limitations set by the septic system. The store can only support seating for 12, and expansion of the septic is not an option.

Basler, now a town selectman with a philosophic remove from the days of selling newspapers and sandwiches, says there might be ways around the store's water-usage limitations, such as installing a holding tank for wastewater that could then be periodically pumped out. Lovitt says another option would be appliances and fixtures that use less water.

And, yes, the building has a leak. No one has assessed the damage as of yet.

Meanwhile, as the populace ponders what the general store could be, there seems to be widespread consensus on what it shouldn't be.

First and foremost, it shouldn't be closed.

"It is our center of gravity," says Pat Solomon, a frequent customer, regardless of who's running the place. "Without it, we're just a place you drive through on Route 23."

Secondly, it's safe to say that many locals did not see themselves in Cole's version of the general store. Not that they expect fishing bobbers, hand-wrought nails, linseed oil and Wonder Bread, but in Cole's duck liver pate, jarred artichoke hearts and upmarket vintage wares, he was viewed as having abandoned any pretense of serving middle-class locals, a charge he vehemently denies.

If we must talk about it, we must: To his detractors, Cole's cardinal sins also included failure to provide beer or wine. Moreover, shy by nature, he wasn't the bright, sunshiny presence behind the counter that people felt they deserved. And even reliable customers learned from experience that it was incumbent upon them to check the expiration date on dairy products.

"He focused on one segment of the population," Basler says. "That's where he ran into difficulties. That segment didn't support him enough, and the other segment felt excluded from it mainly because of pricing."

Cole counters that he tried at first "to be all things to all people," but eventually his store had to speak "to the people who were actually coming into the door with great regularity."

Cole, who ran the Caffe Pomo d'Oro restaurant in West Stockbridge before coming to Monterey, insists that his business model was financially successful. The problem was Monterey, at least a certain segment of it.

"What was difficult was that, for me, on a daily basis there was sort of a relentless chorus of toxic naysayers, and it really took a toll on me," he says. "All towns are gossipy. There's an underpinning of toxicity there. I don't know how else to describe it."

In any case, Cole is gone now, like so many others before him.

Like Wilbur Langdon, who ran the general store until he was reportedly stricken with apoplexy in 1877, which family members attributed to financial difficulties.

In Langdon's case, he didn't owe money; the store was hopping. Rather, he was going broke because he was owed money — "thousands of outstanding debts that will never be collected," according to his obituary in the Berkshire Courier of April 25, 1877.

Tough gig, general stores.

Boehm says she'll accept less than $198,000. Make her an offer.

Felix Carroll can be reached at felixcarroll5@gmail.com.


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