Author Ted Reinstein Highlights New England’s General Stores
Nov 29, 2019 06:00AM
By Pamela Johnson
Library staff had to round up extra chairs for the crowd at Ted Reinstein's "General Stores of N.E." talk
story & photo by Jennifer Russo, Contributing Writer
The Community Room at the Bellingham Library was full of chatty locals ready to hear about the importance of a once-common institution. As more people filtered in to this popular event, library staff needed to pull more chairs out of the back closet to accommodate them. The discussion was sponsored by the Go Local grant as part of Bellingham’s 300th Anniversary celebration.
Ted Reinstein is an author, playwright and award-winning Chronicle reporter who is strongly passionate about this little corner of the country called New England. This was his first time speaking in Bellingham, and he credited his wife and co-author Anne-Marie for helping him to make New England’s General Stores: Exploring an American Classic a reality. The book is an in-depth look at the quintessential general store and how it fosters a sense of community among the people in the towns where it exists.
Captivated by the energy with which he spoke, there wasn’t one person who didn’t listen intently to his marvelous stories of the history of some of these stores. He declared that the fact that the General Store Museum actually resides in California “just isn’t right.” He even used the very New England accents of the subjects he was speaking about, including that of presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. His engaging and comical style had attendees laughing and nodding their heads in understanding.
To drive home his point about the importance of community, he asked people in the room to raise their hand if they knew at least one other person there, and, as expected, most people raised their hands. He spoke about two iconic New England Institutions—the general store and the diner, noting that the journey of the diner was a “ray of hope” for the general store. When fast-food establishments started taking over the country, it was assumed that the local eatery would suffer greatly, and for a time, it did. But when people realized that there was something missing from the experience—running into someone you knew for a quick hello or conversation—it saved the idea of going where there was that sense of community.
Reinstein noted that though some people may blame large stores like Walmart® and Target® for the decrease of business in general stores, the stores had begun to slide before those “big box” stores ever existed. Why? As Ted noted, once cars allowed for people to live and work wherever they wanted, people began moving out to suburbs, with a utopian idea that this was a better lifestyle.
Ray Oldenburg, a retired sociologist, studied this extensively and found that community in this environment was an illusion. There was no longer that close-knit connection where people would take responsibility for one another. People began moving back to smaller towns to get this back, or creating community establishments where they could gather, places which Oldenburg coined the “Third Place.” He discovered that people spend the majority of their time in one of three places —home, work and places where they can feel a familiarity of interacting with other people they know. It gives us validation.
Ted gave people a brief history of how the baby boomer generation bought many general stores at the critical point when they were beginning to disappear. Unfortunately, as they began to age and could no longer run the businesses, many stores failed.
He then shared inspiring stories of how communities came together to make sure their beloved general stores did not close their doors. One community in Acworth, NH, pooled their money to buy the store, and it’s now community operated. Another store in Shrewsbury, VT, owned by Marjorie Pierce, did close. But the community came together to reopen and run it. When Hurricane Irene came through and destroyed many other area businesses, the general store operated on a generator, and the community gathered there for hot coffee and the ability to reach loved ones to let them know they were safe. Some stores never needed to be saved because they were so engrained in the community, such as the Warren General Store in Warren, VT, and Dan & Whits in Norwich, VT.
Closer to home, the Marshfield General Store closed its doors and went up for sale in 2008. A condo developer had planned to tear down the historical structure and build on the land, but actor Steve Carell and his wife, who are from Massachusetts originally, had strong memories of the store and decided to purchase and run it themselves. The store has been enormously successful and even has a post office.
Reinstein advocated for being mindful of the places where we come together as a community and ensuring that those businesses are supported. Establishments like general stores, local eateries, public libraries, senior centers, etc. cannot exist without our help and we would sorely miss them if they were to disappear.
To learn more about Ted and his other works, visit www.TedReinstein.com.