Strafford community creates fallback plan to save beloved general store

While running the cash register, Chrissy Jamieson watches after 18-month-old Waylon Johnson, and Wilder Johnson, 7, of Strafford, Vt., while their father picks up a few groceries at Coburns' General Store in South Strafford on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. Jamieson's family has owned the store since 1977 and are looking for a new owner. Customer Janet Hardy, of Strafford, is at the register checking out her groceries. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

While running the cash register, Chrissy Jamieson watches after 18-month-old Waylon Johnson, and Wilder Johnson, 7, of Strafford, Vt., while their father picks up a few groceries at Coburns' General Store in South Strafford on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. Jamieson's family has owned the store since 1977 and are looking for a new owner. Customer Janet Hardy, of Strafford, is at the register checking out her groceries. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photos - Jennifer Hauck

After returning from lunch at home across the street, Melvin Coburn ties his apron at Coburns' General Store on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in South Strafford, Vt. The store has been run by his family since purchasing it in 1977 and they are hoping to sell the store. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After returning from lunch at home across the street, Melvin Coburn ties his apron at Coburns' General Store on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in South Strafford, Vt. The store has been run by his family since purchasing it in 1977 and they are hoping to sell the store. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After giving Roz Finn a hug goodbye, Neal MacPhail, of Strafford, Vt., goes back to using his roof rake to clean the roof at Coburns' General Store in South Strafford, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. After doing a little shopping, Roz Finn walks back to her home with her dog Tashi. When at the store earlier, owners of the store asked him if he happened to have a roof rake they could use to clean off the snowy roof at the store. MacPhail returned with the rake and cleared the snow away himself. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After giving Roz Finn a hug goodbye, Neal MacPhail, of Strafford, Vt., goes back to using his roof rake to clean the roof at Coburns' General Store in South Strafford, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. After doing a little shopping, Roz Finn walks back to her home with her dog Tashi. When at the store earlier, owners of the store asked him if he happened to have a roof rake they could use to clean off the snowy roof at the store. MacPhail returned with the rake and cleared the snow away himself. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photos - Jennifer Hauck

Sue Coburn, of Coburns' General Store, gets a little computer help from Kerry Claffey, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in South Strafford, Vt. Claffey helps the Coburns' with their non-profit taxes at the store. The family runs a food shelf out of the store. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sue Coburn, of Coburns' General Store, gets a little computer help from Kerry Claffey, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in South Strafford, Vt. Claffey helps the Coburns' with their non-profit taxes at the store. The family runs a food shelf out of the store. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Trudi Brock, of Sharon, Vt., is part of the Strafford Community Trust, a group hoping to raise money to purchase Coburns' General Store in South Strafford, Vt. Brock was at the store on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Trudi Brock, of Sharon, Vt., is part of the Strafford Community Trust, a group hoping to raise money to purchase Coburns' General Store in South Strafford, Vt. Brock was at the store on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

The Coburn family has run Coburns' General Store since 1977 and are now hoping to sell the store. On Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, among items for sale are stuffing and a reusable bay with the store's name on it.  (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The Coburn family has run Coburns' General Store since 1977 and are now hoping to sell the store. On Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, among items for sale are stuffing and a reusable bay with the store's name on it. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Earl Varney, of South Strafford, Vt., chats with Melvin Coburn, owner of Coburns' General Store on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in South Strafford. Varney's family formerly owned the store. The Coburn family is looking to sell the store -- the Strafford Community Trust is rasing money to purchase the operation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Earl Varney, of South Strafford, Vt., chats with Melvin Coburn, owner of Coburns' General Store on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, in South Strafford. Varney's family formerly owned the store. The Coburn family is looking to sell the store -- the Strafford Community Trust is rasing money to purchase the operation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Janet Hardy, of Strafford, Vt. chats with Melvin Coburn while ordering deli meats at the store on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in South Strafford, Vt. The Coburn family is looking to sell the store -- the Strafford Community Trust is rasing money to purchase the operation.  (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Janet Hardy, of Strafford, Vt. chats with Melvin Coburn while ordering deli meats at the store on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in South Strafford, Vt. The Coburn family is looking to sell the store -- the Strafford Community Trust is rasing money to purchase the operation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-28-2024 8:00 PM

Modified: 01-31-2024 10:23 AM


SOUTH STRAFFORD — When Melvin Coburn takes Amtrak’s Vermonter train eight hours south to visit his son in New Jersey, he makes sure spend some time in Wegmans, a chain supermarket.

“I say, ‘All you have to do, Craig, is take me down there in the morning and pick me back up at night,’ ” the 79-year-old Coburn said. “Because I just love a store.”

Coburn and his family run Coburns’ General Store, a staple of life in Strafford.

Now, after nearly 50 years at the helm, they’re trying, begrudgingly, to sell. “We’re getting old,” Melvin’s wife, Sue, said, and Melvin has health issues. The store has sat on the market since July 2022. No offers have rolled in.

When the news came out that the family had put the store up for grabs, fear mounted among townspeople that Coburns’ could shutter entirely, going the way of so many small grocers of old.

But Strafford has its own penchant for stores, and residents don’t plan on letting theirs close up shop.

“No village can exist or prosper without a store,” reads “South Strafford, Vermont: A Village History,” a publication of the town’s historical society, for sale in Coburns’, next to word searches and copies of Farmers’ Almanac.

Trudi Brock, a previous member of the Save Our Store Steering Committee, approached the Coburns with an idea. The group wanted to form a trust, so they could start raising money to buy the store as a nonprofit.

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“They gave us their blessing to go ahead and do that,” Brock said, adding that for now, their efforts are “in the background.” If someone comes along and gives the Coburns an adequate offer, the group will step aside.

Otherwise, the Strafford Community Trust would purchase the building and sell the business to another party — ideally, a family. The shopkeepers wouldn’t have to worry about the overhead costs of maintaining the white, two-story clapboard building, which dates back to the late 1800s.

As Dollar Generals and Walmarts plop down in Vermont, the Green Mountain State has lost over 30 general stores in the last few decades. A similar nonprofit model was used to purchase flagging stores in other towns, including Barnard and East Calais.

But Melvin shrugs off what might be his expected partisanship in the war that has pitted superstores against their smaller predecessors. Of his competitors, Hannaford is Melvin’s favorite. “That’s such a nice, clean store,” he said.

No one can do all of their shopping at a small store, Melvin said. “Still, we’ve always had good support.”

On Thursday, Roz Finn left Coburns’ with a ream of copy paper and seafood salad for lunch. Finn is known to stand on the corner of Justin Morrill Highway and Route 132 on Mondays, next to her own proclamation — a sign that reads: “I wish you a peaceful and safe week.” She comes to the store almost every day.

Finn said she can’t imagine Strafford without Coburns’. Partly because she wonders where its residents would, in that scary alternate universe, meet up to talk.

There’s not a coffee shop or anything like that in town, “and we’re really a chatty lot here,” Finn said.

The Coburns’ building has been home to stores held under a procession of proprietors since 1884, when the first owner, Howard C. Gilkey, bought the property.

In 1977, the Coburn brothers purchased the store from Richard Wilson. “It was a dream come true,” said Melvin, who had been working at the Co-op Food Store in Hanover at the time. He stepped into his new role with zeal.

The store has long held a post office and a branch of the Mascoma Bank, but Melvin revived a defunct laundromat out back, “Coburns’ Wash & Dri.” A sign on the wall reads “Please don’t use Canadian quarters in the washing machine,” and the sound of the tumbling machines competes with the rush of the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River, just feet away.

The previous owners (who perhaps weren’t “built” for running a store, Melvin speculated) had let the laundry hoses freeze.

“It can be scary to be in a business like ours, because many of the big stores are just gobbling places like this up,” Sue said. But whoever ultimately has the nerve to take it on next, the Coburns’ hope it remains a family-run business.

When Melvin’s brother Philip retired, Melvin’s daughter, Chrissy Jamieson, stepped in to a full-time position. Now with her parents wanting out, the ownership of the store could have been passed to her. Jamieson, however, has her own kids scattered across the country and wants more flexibility, she said.

“Everyday I feel guilty,” she said. “There are days when I wish I could stay, and days when we can’t sell this place soon enough.”

But when they do sell, the Coburns won’t be going far. Sue and Melvin live in a house across the street, which they bought upon the death of Mabel Varney, the wife of a previous store owner.

Sue had worked as a substitute clerk in the post office when the Varneys owned the store. On Friday, Mabel’s son, Earl, 99, came in, as usual, to get his mail.

Tammy Mullen works as a meat cutter at Coburns’, just as her father, Gene Brown, had for 16 years before her. “This is a nice family,” Mullen said from behind the deli counter.

When the Coburns moved into the Varneys’ old house, she was nervous customers wouldn’t leave them alone, confusing the front door of their home with the checkout counter. “But people have been respectful,” Sue said.

Once, after closing hours, someone called the Coburns at home. They needed some medication from the store. “So we walked across the road and opened the door for them to get it,” Sue said.

At the peak of the pandemic, business increased by more than a third, Melvin said.

“People didn’t want to travel, take the risk of going down into the big stores,” he said. “And we did a lot of curbside.” But convenience wasn’t the only factor. Business has remained steady since, he said. “People maybe also just realized that they like to have a place like this to go to and see their neighbors.”

The store is good in a crisis, Sue said. “If the power goes out, everyone shows up here for their coffee.”

Last December, all three Coburns came down with a bad cold, and couldn’t run the store. Strafford residents, including Melvin’s doctor, Chris Lowrey, came in to meet grocery deliveries and stock shelves.

“Then when we went in for Melvin’s checkup, Dr. Lowrey said, ‘Now I really understand what you do, Melvin, and it’s hard stuff,’ ” Sue said.

After the store sells, “I’ll probably hang around here as much as I am now,” Melvin said. “It’s such a good feeling to own the place. It’s my own little world, really.”

If it means more time at work for Melvin, it’s not bad that the store is sitting undisturbed on the real estate market. “This doesn’t seem like a job to me because I love it so much,” he said.

Plus, there’s history to make.

Howard Gilkey ran the store for 47 years, into the early 19th century, “a record among all storekeepers in Strafford,” the village record reads. He died there. A passerby “stopped in to speak to him and found him lying on the floor.”

Now Jamieson has an app on her phone, counting down the days until Sept. 14. When the family closes the store’s doors at 6 p.m., Melvin would have outlasted Gilkey’s long reign.

“If we make it to then, God willing, we’ll pop champagne,” Jamieson said.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

CORRECTION: If Coburns’ General Store were to sell to the Strafford Community Trust,  the trust would retain ownership of the building but sell the business to another party. A previous version of this story incorrectly described the potential relationship between the trust and a future store owner.