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Tuftonboro NH's General Store:
Where New England's Traditional Sense
of Community Thrives
By Dan Derby

It's 6 a.m. and barely light outside.  Inside, the early crowd -- a mixture of
drop-ins and stay-awhiles -- have filled the table in the Tuftonboro General
Store.  There will be another crowd at 7 a.m. but these early stalwarts come from
as far away as Moultonboro to claim seats at the day's chat.  

At State Highway 109A and Federal Corner Road there always just enough
room.  There's a sense of conversations that started some time ago and continued
today.  

How much a cord for firewood this year?  

How were Steve's daughter's first days at UNH?    

Where's Tony's well project?  

The crowd splits its opinion of how useful a divining rod might be but Tony is
not sure.  And so on.

A life size wooden Indian stands silent nearby. At the counter, away from the
lively debate and outrageous comments, owner Teri Heppe is summing the
previous days receipts. Calm and steady, she's paying no attention to the group.  
Her last day job was teaching at Kingswood Middle School so these guys are no
challenge for her.

A traditional New England country store

Traditional New England country stores were
variously the post office, barter shop, importer
of exotic goods, clothier, feed station, checkers
center and meeting place.  The motto was
famously, "We've got it, if we can find it!"  
Their heyday was from the Civil War to the
early 1900s. They ended because mail order
and better transportation killed off their local
advantage.  In those days, family accounts
were settled up when crops came in.  

While some products came packaged --
LaCreole Hair Dressing,  Uneeda Biscuits --
most were bought in bulk and sold by the pound. Unlike the supermarket of
today, most were served from "behind the counter."   Soap, by the way, was
never a big seller, farm wives could (and did) make their own.  It was a matter of
pride more than anything.

"It's a tradition for them,"  Teri's husband, Greg, says about the morning coffee
crowd.  "Most are self-employed or retired so they can set their own schedule.  
Some drop in, drink a half a cup and go on.  Others come in when they are
around, like those living somewhere else and up here on the weekends.  The
weekend crowd is completely different."  

The store feels chock-full, a quality that harks back to those early stores.  Things
for sale, things to admire and some things that have the unknown quality of a
good junk store, hang from the ceiling, walls and perch on all flat surfaces.  

Where you can even find a post office

In back is the Tuftonboro Post Office,
complete with frosted window and antique
mailboxes.  Many products are local,
including Jim Clark's Black Bear coffees,
famous locally for winning a lawsuit
against giant coffee purveyor, Starbucks.  
It has limited services and often the post
mistress has to call "downtown" to get
the current regulations.  

But it makes up for it with personal service.   Have you ever walked into a post
office hoping for a special package and have the postmaster yell, "It's not here
yet!"  before you got to the window?  When was the last time you saw a postal
employee hand carry a package to a patron's car?   "The store is a ... service to the
community, especially since it has the Post Office in it.  Which, by the way, was
established in 1827," says Greg.  

A dying breed?

According to a special report on country stores by New Hampshire Public
Radio, as many a half a dozen New Hampshire country stores closed in last five
years.  Most blamed lack of buying power and increasingly difficult Wal-Mart
style competition.   

In spite of significant local community help to survive others became museums.
Still others have had to seek shelter in the Alliance for Country Stores.  Currently
focused on Vermont, the Alliance offers increased buying power at the expense
of the independence and individuality of traditional stores.  

It remains to be seen if this trend will work in New Hampshire's "Live Free or
Die" atmosphere.  At last report, the community groups in Sandwich and
Canterbury, N.H. were working to save their stores, as those in Heron and
Harrisburg were able to do.  

Tough times for this New England tradition, but Tuftonboro thrives

Greg and Teri bought the Tuftonboro Country Store several years ago when it
was beginning to look like it would disappear from what was once called
"Mackerel Corner."  It had been there since 1822.  Their expectation was that it
would take several years to shake out the bugs and be profitable.   

But the store, according to Greg, is
doing fine.  In fact, it continues to
grow and add to it's offerings.  It's
not completely obvious why this store
is successful and so many others fail.
For one thing, Greg and Teri shop
the big discount warehouses
aggressively.  They also listen
carefully to their customers.  They
weigh each new product decision
with the care of a farmer picking crops to plant.  Greg is careful not to try to
stock a wide variety of everything due to strain of cost and shelf space.  
However, when I point out there's a huge range of local and national beer brands
in his cooler -- Greg deadpans, "That's because beer's a priority."

The store is not particularly tourist oriented. At least not yet. Despite being close
to Wolfeboro, it is off the water and not near major local attractions unless you
count being on the route to
Castle-in-the-Clouds.  

It is the local game weigh station but does not issue hunting and fishing licenses:
" ... too time consuming."  There's a very tasty pizza, subway and other offerings
at their grill, run by Mike, their son.  As Greg points out, these types of stores
take a minimum of three people to run and, on cue, he's called away to make
change.  He seems to know everyone's name, the trucks they drive, and their
kids.

There's no checkers game at the Tuftonboro General Store but Greg leaves out a
puzzle he built using a wood base and golf tees made when he taught high
school Industrial Arts.  He quit when "it wasn't fun anymore."   On the side, Greg
is a accomplished flautist, specializing in Celtic music, and is a regular in the
band, "Celtic Tradition." In fact, a couple years ago he started arranging concerts
of visiting Irish bands in a local church.  These days, it's not uncommon for the
phone to ring at the store and the person on the line to be calling from Ireland.  

Greg recently observe: "There something bonding about a store.   Part of a bigger
community.   You can't be in this business without enjoying the people side.  It's
what the business is about."  

Maybe New Hampshire Public Radio's recent story about general stores missed
a point about how these stores can survive.  

When I take a picture of the early morning crowd,  Teri watches over my
shoulder.   They ignore me.   

She smiles gently and observes,  "You know that's what this place is about."








For more information visit
Tuftonboro General Store.
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