How a Little Bar in the Back of the Calais General Store May Be Key to its Survival

by Jamie Buckley, Community News Service
photo by Anne Marie Shea | Calais residents help hang a new sign for the renamed store before the pandemic hit. When the store transitioned to community ownership, the general store became the Maple Corner Community Store.

CALAIS – Like many retail businesses, the Maple Corner Community Store in Calais faces financial struggles after COVID-19 disrupted normal operation. But some shareholders of the community-owned store think the Whammy Bar, a 20-seat watering hole in the back of the store that could hold 40 people on a busy night, might be the secret to keeping the nearly two-century-old store running.

Some version of the Maple Corner Store has stood in the center of Calais since the mid-1800s. It began with the Red Shop, then it was a mill in the early 1900s, then it became “Lackey’s Store” in 1925, until it merged with the Adamant Co-op after some financial struggles. Two years later, the store burned to the ground, and it was rebuilt and passed between various private owners until late 2019, when it became community-owned, according to a business plan created at the time.

The real deficit that the store is facing now is the Whammy Bar being shut down. Located in the back of the store, the small pub the size of a living room became possibly the most unique live music venue in Vermont. The last private owners of the Maple Corner Store, Artie and Nancy Toulis, are credited for opening the Whammy Bar back in 2012.

“The store itself is kind of a break-even venture, and the Whammy Bar is where more of the profit margin is. So even though we had increased sales, we were still losing money,” said Rob Lamb, the store’s board secretary who was part of the founding group that transitioned the store to community ownership.

With the way vaccinations are going, Lamb says that the store is planning to reopen the Whammy Bar this summer.

In December 2019, the Maple Corner Store had to prove its resilience in a climate where general stores were struggling across Vermont. Afraid of losing their store for good after the Toulises put it up for sale, residents of Calais banded together to purchase shares of what is now the Maple Corner Community Store. And less than three months later, as the COVID-19 pandemic started to unfold, the store and its community had to prove their resilience yet again.

Vermont general stores have always been hardy entities, adapting to the changes in their communities and evolving to overcome whatever the world throws at them.

The stores aren’t just a one-stop for locals to get groceries or grab a quick cup of coffee, they’re a social crossroad where friends can chat over morning coffee and neighbors can catch up on the latest news.

But like most small businesses during the challenging pandemic, Vermont general stores are struggling to keep their doors open, according to Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, author of “Country Stores of Vermont: A History & Guide.” Usually kept alive by tourists looking for a taste Vermont, general stores have had to adjust to keep their businesses running in a time when no one is traveling.

In March of last year when COVID-19 hit, the Maple Corner Community Store halted in-store shopping and switched to curbside pickup only.

The store drastically increased their inventory in an effort to save locals the hassle of leaving town to get their groceries. Since many felt safer buying food through the store, its numbers rose exponentially, but the store still faced a steep overhead, primarily because of higher payroll from an increase in essential staff.

“Everything is obviously just that much harder during a pandemic,” said Olivia Gay, who grew up right next to the Maple Corner Store and now serves as an advisory board member and shareholder of the store. “So I think it’s hard to tell if some of the bumps that the store has hit is related to the pandemic or if they’re just ordinary bumps for a transitioning business.”

And while the Maple Corner Store reopened to in-store customers in the beginning of July, the store still faced a slow summer compared to years past due to the lack of outsiders passing through Calais. Gay said that without the usual traffic from summer visitors and no fellow Vermonters driving out to visit Curtis Pond or walk the loop in Calais, business was slow.

Anne Marie Shea, the general manager through much of the pandemic as well as assistant manager of the store for almost 10 years, believes the transition to community ownership has played a critical part in the store’s successful operation, especially in comparison to many other Vermont general stores currently struggling.

“Artie and Nancy have said specifically that they could have never done what we did through this,” she said. “And I’m not sure that’s totally true, but I do think that with the community having a little bit of reserve that we could lean on was a big deal. And also having more people involved in brainstorming ways we could stay open, brainstorming ways we could feel safer was super helpful.”

Even through COVID-19, the Maple Corner Community Store has remained the central hub for residents of Calais. But some worry community support may be insufficient to keep the doors open.

“I am a little concerned for the future,” said Rob Lamb. “Our biggest concern is the unknown of when the Whammy Bar will open, and when it does, will people feel safe going there? It’s a tiny little space and that’s part of what makes it so intimate and wonderful, but that doesn’t mix well with people feeling safe about their health.”

Anne Marie Shea is a bit more optimistic.

“I’m not worried about the future of the store because I think that whether they’re on the right track or not, they’ll find it. But I do think they’re headed in the right direction,” Shea said.

Gay is hopeful the store’s community backing, and relatively good luck, will continue.

“We’ve just been so lucky, so fortunate, so blessed,” Olivia Gay said, “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t continue to be able to manage a project like this. I know we will.”