story and photo by Doug McClure
ALBANY – After eight long years and $800,000 of fundraising, Albany again has a general store. A fire shuttered the previous incarnation of the store almost a decade ago, turning the town into a food desert. Until last week, an Albany resident would have to drive all the way to Irasburg or Craftsbury just to get a gallon of milk.
Over the past few years, the nonprofit Albany Community Trust (ACT) has worked to secure financing so the town would once again have a general store. Emily Maclure, Kit Basom, and local baker Jana Smart co-own the “Genny,” as the Albany General Store is known. The three also co-own the Craftsbury General Store.
Maclure said that the opening proved an emotional one for some residents. “Some of the first few people who were coming in were almost welling up with tears, and I think some of the people were the folks from Albany Community Trust that got behind this project and have been working tirelessly for three-and-a-half years, doing grant applications, doing all the legwork to put this building back in the community.” The ACT bought the property in 2018, based on a town survey that identified a store as a critical community need. The group partnered with Preservation Trust of Vermont as a fiscal sponsor and secured over $200,000 in grants and $140,000 in donations in the first year alone.
The building has been completely refurbished, with the kitchen expanded and slightly extended further back. Completely new is a large open room which is intended to not just to be seating for customers, but also a community space, something that also had been in short supply in Albany. The store has WiFi.
In a twist, the pandemic actually provided the trio with some valuable insight into what consumers are seeking from their general stores now. Maclure said the Craftsbury Store adapted to local demand due to COVID. “I feel like it became a real grocery store during COVID times.”
She said people wanted to have a wider range of products at their local store, and that is a lesson the three brought with them as they stocked the shelves of the store. Basom said, “We wanted to make sure the space also felt like it was carrying the essentials, that it was a need we were filling that we appreciated.”
She said, “We knew that here in Albany, we would be the only store in town, so we were really trying to create a product selection that would appeal to the whole community, really feel like there was something for everybody.” Basom said the deli is a big draw.
Smart said one secret ingredient is the store’s breakfast offering. She grew up in Texas and breakfast burritos were popular there. The food at the store borrows from that tradition and also focuses very much on home-style food, such as gravy and biscuits. The store makes pizzas from scratch in-house also, sold either as whole pies or by the slice.
Maclure said one benefit she had seen already was the store becoming a social space. “Just to get that gallon of milk, the social interaction. The first day here, there was somebody who lived up Pitkin Road and someone else who lived a mile down that road who had never met. And they were in here and started talking, and I’m like, this is how that happens. People get the chance to have those connections. I think that is what I think all of us feel why this project is so important.”
On Sunday, the store was busy with customers jostling to get a late lunch, with slices being ordered in quick succession. One customer thanked Maclure for getting something in that he wanted.
Maclure said that the ACT’s strategy to return a store to the community exemplified a successful way to turn around the trend of Vermont’s decline in general stores. It’s a model similar to one now being followed in East Calais to bring back its store.
Renting the space out to a store owner lowers the cost of entry for prospective businesspeople, she said, “the things that need to be done to operate these old buildings are high-cost and a huge lift for small business owners to try and come up with.” At the same time, while the ACT is renting the space, its primary interest is not in being landlords. “They’re in the business of building community,” Maclure said. “That’s their goal, to have a store here that’s thriving. They want us to thrive, and they want the community to be happy.”