Craftsbury’s Generous Stores
My Grandmother Ellen lived for 90 years in Connecticut, guarding the enormous maple trees that lined her driveway, fighting a valiant but hopeless campaign against billboards, and bemoaning each and every loss of an old timber-framed barn. Not long after losing one of her final battles, which involved the arrival of a Dunkin Donuts in the Historic District and a Pyrrhic victory limited to the aesthetics of signage, my grandmother sent me a hand-written card:
“Dearest Timothy,” she wrote, in her shaky, elegant script, “You’ve moved to one of the choicest places in all of New England. I’m so pleased.”
At the time I wasn’t so pleased about moving to Craftsbury. It’s hard to move anywhere as a 12-year-old, and for a kid from a rapidly suburbanizing slice of Connecticut, adjusting to life in the rural Northeast Kingdom was a challenge. I didn’t understand my parents’ desire to live in a small Vermont town and raise my brother and I close to the land, but I did my best to catch up and fit in - learning to cross-country ski, blowing things up with black powder, and practicing basketball, which was far and away the most popular sport at Craftsbury Academy - though not the easiest of sports for a slight, pre-adolescent boy who much preferred baseball and golf.
Now, 25 years later, I still struggle to make a lay-up when shooting baskets in the Craftsbury Academy gym, and I sold my muzzleloader last spring, in a deal brokered by the fabulous Ben Hewitt. I’ll never be truly native to Vermont, but I’m definitely a proud Vermonter, and I’ve come to agree with Grandma Ellen - Craftsbury is indeed one of the choicest places in New England.
No doubt President Calvin Coolidge, a native Vermonter, was thinking of a place like Craftsbury when he gave his Brave Little State speech and talked about Vermont’s values - how the generous store held by Vermont communities could serve as seed-stock for the entire nation:
These words were true in 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression. They are still true now, 90 years later, in today’s Vermont.
Here’s the thing about Craftsbury: I can point you to dozens of spots in town that could have made the cover of Vermont Life magazine - may it rest in peace - but more important than the aesthetics of the landscape is the rich tradition of civic engagement that has enabled Craftsbury to maintain its distinct rural identity in an age of cultural homogenization. I’m only beginning to understand the depths of the commitment that my fellow citizens have to Craftsbury, and the many ways in which a multigenerational tradition of generosity enriches and sustains the whole town.
There’s the Craftsbury Volunteer Fire Department, for instance, persisting on the strength of a modest appropriation renewed annually at Town Meeting, a Chicken Barbeque fundraiser in June, and the selfless, highly competent service of dozens of volunteers. There’s the Energy Committee, the School Board, the Village Improvement Society, the Broadband Committee, the Land Conservation Taskforce, the Mental Health Group, the Road Safety Taskforce, and dozens of other civic organizations, formal and informal, large and small. I serve on the Craftsbury Planning Commission, a group that gathers on Thursday evenings at the Town Hall, munching dark chocolate and cheese curds as we test the edges of our aversion to the “Z word” - zoning - a concept that seems less and less outlandish with every Dollar General and industrial wind turbine that encroaches on the western frontier of the Northeast Kingdom.
Both stores are locally owned and expertly managed by teams of skillful and hardworking women who are universally respected and who care deeply about the community. Both stores are beloved Craftsbury institutions - places where neighbors gather for sustenance of all kinds. And both stores fill a different niche, representative, in a sense, of the two personalities of rural Vermont society. My wise neighbor Addie Lou refers to Craftsbury’s stores as the two Blues - “One Blue Collar and the other Blue Blood” - but like many town residents, myself included, she makes a point of shopping at both.
The C Village opens early, at 5 am, and the parking lot is full of pick-up trucks by 5:05. Walk in for coffee and a donut before dawn and you’ll find a group of local men sitting in a circle on low stools and folding chairs, catching up on town gossip. The C Village serves as a Big Game Reporting Station, so if it’s deer season (or turkey season) successful hunters will pull up throughout the morning, idling by the diesel pump while Joann or Kristy steps outside to run the scale and update the sheet where results are tracked for the buck pool. Above the C Village is a tattoo parlor, Kingdom Ink, where there’s a year-long waiting list for Cori Jean’s stunning custom designs of flowers, guns, logging trucks, deer camps, skulls, feathers, and flags.
The Craftsbury General Store, or the Genny, as it’s affectionately known, has a world-class selection of wines, gooey local cheeses, my favorite bulk granola, and a deli where you can get a bagel with lox, kale salad, or a tofu banh mi. It opens at 7am, long after the morning crowd at the C Village has dispersed for the day, but still in time to dispense coffee and breakfast sandwiches to the not-so-early-birds. I love nothing more than sitting out on the front porch of the Genny on a Sunday morning, savoring the New York Times, sipping coffee, and chatting with neighbors, everyone taking things slow and easy while the day is young. On summer evenings there are sometimes wine tastings on the stone patio, and every Wednesday the General Store puts on a Globetrotting Dinner, a prepared meal of take-out international cuisine.
Although the two stores are technically in competition with one another, the proprietors find lots of ways to collaborate. If one deli is short on tomatoes, for example, they can replenish their supply across the street. Emily and Kit, of the Genny, would never dream of putting in a Creemee machine, leaving that niche to the C Village, which does a brisk business in cold treats on hot summer days. The C Village Store serves their delicious take-out dinners on Friday evenings, an arrangement designed to avoid direct competition with the Globetrotting Dinners over at the Genny. Folks from both stores also support town activities like the annual Craftsbury Kickball Tournament, held in August on Craftsbury Common. The kickball trophy, awarded last summer to Team Rubber Balls & Liquor, is currently on display behind the counter at the C Village.
In early July, on the eve of Independence Day, the two stores put on a Block Party for the whole town, and for a few incredible hours Craftsbury Village becomes the most happening place in Vermont.
The downtown section of the Craftsbury Road is closed for the big event, with traffic diverted down Black River and Cemetery Roads to Route 14. The stores coordinate a massive buffet of free food for everyone to enjoy, including fresh vegetables from Pete’s Greens, mounds of cheese from Jasper Hill Farm, and burgers and hotdogs cooked on smoker grill barbecue rigs. Many local organizations chip in one way or another, but it’s the stores that set the tone, putting all competition aside to co-host the celebration. There’s music in the streets, games, dancing, eating and drinking, and an epic fireworks show. This year, when the Block Party fell in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave, athletes from the Craftsbury Outdoor Center rolled up with 7 truckloads of snow that had been stored under piles of woodchips since winter and built a sledding track on a hill behind the volleyball court.
Just about everyone shows up for the Block Party, and at the end of the night I’m surely not the only one whose face hurts from so much smiling. In an age of economic angst and political division, it feels especially meaningful to be part of a community where people come together across political, generational, and cultural lines to create something extraordinary, and to celebrate everything that we hold in common.
I like to think that both Grandma Ellen and Calvin Coolidge would approve.