Pickles & Penny Candy
Longstanding General Stores
Purvey Necessities and Nostalgia
Story and photos by Stacy Milbouer and Tom Long / Fiddlehead Contributing Editors
General stores are not just a convenience in New Hampshire. They’re a lasting testimony to pragmatism, resourcefulness and local commerce.
The iconic landmarks have been around for more than 200 years in the Granite State. Some have flourished, and others have not.
The secret? Give people what they want — and that may differ from town to town or generation to generation for that matter.
Calef’s Country Store in Barrington is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. It’s a remarkable achievement for the shop that began in a spare room in Mary Calef’s home and has weathered the changes in popular taste from completion of the first transcontinental railroad to the digital age.
And it has such lasting power that it’s purchased another iconic mercantile — Moulton’s Market in Amherst.
The 19th-century white frame building with a farmer’s porch and a 100-year-old iron stove has stood at the side of the Franklin Pierce Highway since Jesse James was robbing banks. Its creaking wooden floors trod by generations of shoppers drawn by and are still attracted by its wares.
Though it might have once relied on providing seeds and equipment to local farmers, it now caters to those with culinary nostalgia.
There is “penny candy,” homemade fudge, pancake mix and maple syrup, sandwiches and cold cuts at a deli counter jams, jellies, ginger snaps and a big barrel filled with pickles — much of which falls under the Calef’s Country Store brand with a drawing of the store as a logo.
Big wheels of aged cheddar cheeses and Cheeseman Joel Sherburne, who has worked at the store for a half-century and has a selection of Yankee stories that it as extensive as the store’s selection of dairy products. There is hot coffee, steamed hot dogs and their own root beer on tap.
There is a side selection of New England-made products, homemade soups and baked beans. The store also has a website for those too busy to stop by the shop.
“We’re all about customer service,” said Miriam Nasr, co-owner of the Chester General Store, which is redefining itself after more than a century on a hilltop beside Route 102.
Nasr and her husband, Sam, reopened the store four and a half years ago after it was closed for a few years. They spruced up the interior and updated the merchandise to include locally made wine, beer, crafts and food.
There is now a selection of Boar’s Head cold cuts. Sandwiches are made to order and there are frozen entrees in the freezer. There is maple syrup, T-shirts, gift items, wine and glasses, groceries and frozen foods, everything you might need to pick up a gift or prepare a dinner.
There is also a wide selection of boutique beers. “We’re well known for our craft beers,” Miriam said.
“We try to have a great variety of merchandise,” she said, “including a large selection of goods from local vendors. We really try to support local businesses.”
Bags of Miles to Go Coffee (an homage to the nearby Robert Frost Farm in Derry) are prominently displayed.
“It’s roasted right here in town,” Miriam said. “The bags contain beans. We’ll grind them if you’d like.”
They also offer pizza.
“What do you think?” Sam asks after proffering slices of pizza to a couple of visitors.
Finding just the right recipe for pizza is emblematic of the couple’s search for just the right merchandise.
“It’s a constant challenge to get just the right mix of merchandise,” Miriam said. “Some things are seasonal, and others may appeal to different people as they move in and out of town.”
She says the couple appreciates their customers and always greets them with a smile.
“They’re what keep us in business,” she said, “If there’s an item they want, and we don’t have it, we’ll order it if we can.”
Miriam said the couple is always experimenting with new items.
“We’re constantly searching for what’s current,” she said. And the container of chocolate desert hummus in the cold case proves her point.
According to one happy customer on Facebook the general store is a “super friendly and convenient spot right here in the heart of Chester, run by a family who are constantly giving back to the community … lots of locally made products, unusual items from overseas and really good coffee.”
General store is shorthand for a general merchandise store. Back in the day, the stores offered one-stop shopping for rural folk who might need clothing, flour, sugar, tools and seed for the upcoming spring planting season.
It was the social center of the surrounding area and served as an open forum for local news, gossip and politics. A lot of deals have been made while basking in the warmth of a wood-burning stove in a general store.
In fact, general stores started as mercantile or country stores as far back as the early 17th century in the United States, offering provisions for those who didn’t live near cities or large towns.
As the population of the towns grew bigger, it wasn’t unusual for the post office to be situated in the general store and for the proprietor to be the postmaster (the Harrisville post office is still located in the back of the general store) and sometimes the town clerk and justice of the peace.
In the days before credit cards the general store owner often provided merchandise on credit to farmers who agreed to pay their bills when the crops came in. If the proprietors weren’t willing to give you credit, you might have to work your farm without a hoe.
And while they are no longer banks by proxy, a general store still tells you a lot about the community in which it’s situated and in which its thrived and survived.
The Harrisville General Store has been in business continually since 1838 and is one of – if not the – oldest continually operated general store in the country. Once operated for the convenience of local mill workers, it’s now a must-stop for food and baked goods.
On a typical day diners noodle on their laptops while noshing on homemade donuts, saucer-sized homemade cookies and salads, including one of the best kale concoctions around. There are renowned panini including the brie, ham, pickled onion and cornichon on homemade bread; local meats from Mayfair Farm; eggs from Farwell Farm; and outdoor seating on wrought iron chairs with spectacular crows’ eye view of the mill on the hill below.
For the past decade, the store has been owned by Historic Harrisville and run by local Laura Carden with the help of her mother, baker supreme M’Lue Zahner. It’s a model for a community-owned third place.
Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett is also owned by a town entity — Robie’s Preservation Corporation, which has owned the building and its historical/political memorabilia content since 1997 when Lloyd Robie retired. George Robie purchased the store in 1887 and his family operated it for four generations.
Two years ago, restaurateurs Joshua and Amber Enright, forerunners in the state’s locavore movement, stepped in to run the store which was closed for more than a year, and opened the farm-to-table Roots Café and catering within.
They moved into the historic building with new food and new ideas while maintaining tradition and history, which includes a large collection of political ephemera like the posters which have always made Robie’s a regular stop for presidential candidates during New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary season.
And it still serves as a general store, selling locally sourced food and crafts, including chocolates, flour and grains, maple syrup, honey, hand-crafted soaps, wool goods and Robie’s store souvenirs, of course.
But just as important to the couple as commerce is community.
“It’s a huge gathering place,” said Joshua. “We thought that would just be weekends, but it’s true of weekdays as well.”
In fact, the store has been the venue for several weddings and farm-to-table dinners since the couple took over.
A wooden Native American on the front porch beckons shoppers to the Old Country Store and Museum in Moultonborough, a long-lived general store that has morphed into a tourist attraction.
Located on the John Greenleaf Whittier Highway, the Holden family operates the store and tout it as being among the oldest general stores in the country, dating back to 1781. At various times it has been the site of town meetings and housed a post office for many years.
It now purveys a wide selection of knick-knacks, foods, frying pans and souvenirs. There is a selection of penny candies, wheels of cheese and a pickle barrel, store-made peanut butter maple syrup and pancake mix.
There is a whole room devoted to candles, a display of cast-iron cookware, racks of coffee mugs and toys and novelties of all description. New Hampshire tchotchkes, not to mention toys and more toys. In short, it is a general merchandise store generally geared toward tourists on a heavily traveled Lakes Region highway.
As one Facebook reviewer wrote, echoing the sentiments of others, “If you can’t find it in there... you probably don’t need it.”