General store owner hangs up his apron after 30 years
POMFRET, Vt. (AP) – A week after signing the store away, Chuck Gundersen sat in his blue apron at the butcher block near the dry goods shelves, describing how others viewed him during his 30-year tenure as proprietor of the Teago General Store.
“It always sounds to me like I’m the antithesis of what a general store owner should be,” Gundersen said, his freckled skin and white hair a testament to his 73 years. “People will say, ‘The guy never talks. He doesn’t smile very much. He’s very reserved.'”
They have a point, Gundersen said. When he bought the Teago on a whim 30 years ago, it didn’t occur to him that running a quaint little country store would be a test of his social skills.
“I kind of pictured myself sitting at the desk up front there, with plenty of time to read or write or do whatever I wanted and, you know, sell a few canned goods and things like that in between,” he said.
Instead, the reserved Gundersen soon found out that his customers—like many patrons of a vanishing breed of Vermont country stores—were interested in more than the hodgepodge assortment of sponges and mousetraps, Snapple and YooHoo, peanut butter and hand-warmers arrayed on the shelves above the well-worn floor boards.
They valued the building as a community center—a place where they could strike up a conversation, learn local news and share a cup of coffee with a neighbor.
That customers were chatty surprised Gundersen, whose presence is calm and genial, but quiet.
“I’m very uncomfortable with people until I get to know them.”
Before he took on the store, Gundersen had a long and varied career, beginning in 1956 when, at the age of 12, he started working on boats for his father’s business, the Gundersen Catamaran Co. in New Jersey. Back then, he was a decent student, though he flunked algebra during his high school freshman year, barely managing a D in the subject in summer school.
He attended Ocean County College in New Jersey, spent some time in the Army. But in the 1970s, Gundersen felt it was time for a change, and he traded a well-paying gig as a title examiner for a student slot at the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, New York. He moved to Vermont in July of 1976 and took a job as a chef at The Prince and the Pauper restaurant in Woodstock, soon meeting his wife, Alice. In 1982, he left that restaurant to manage the South Royalton House, which at that time was operated by the Vermont Law School.
It was around then that he started patronizing the Teago General Store, which was right up the street from where they lived. The creaky store, sitting as it does on an odd triangle of land in the middle of South Pomfret, had an air of romance about it, even mystery. Like Teago Fire Department and the Teago Grange, the store is named for Teago Hill. But how the hill got its name, nobody knows.
“There are stories about it but they’re clearly stories that have been made up,” Gundersen said. “There’s never been anybody in the town named Teago.”
But the store’s prospects were shaky, and a bankruptcy soon landed it on the auction block.
“Knowing that it was about to be auctioned off and afraid that it would be auctioned off piece by piece, she bought the whole thing,” said Gundersen—the “she” was Rhoda Teagle, a New York City philanthropist who was active in civic life in Pomfret and Woodstock, where she served as a village trustee. She reopened the store, but Gundersen knew Teagle, then 77, wouldn’t own it forever.
“I thought that running it, that could be an interesting, fun thing to do and probably very impractical, and that made it very appealing to me,” he said.
So Gundersen approached Teagle with an offer, and on Sept. 1, 1987, he bought it.
“I don’t think that I had any plan or concept of what I would do,” he said, “or how long I would do it.”
Gundersen added a deli to the store’s offerings, and quickly fell into a routine. He would come in at 6:30 in the morning, bring the newspapers in off the wooden deck out front. He’d pass shelves of baking soda and icing, salt and raisins, to get the coffee going. Then it would be time to put the newspapers into a rack of boxes, labeled with the names of town wags—Basset, Shaw, Long and Pickett—who had reserved copies.
Instead of the snoozy, impersonal existence he’d imagined, he found he was working 80 hours a week, including the time he spent keeping books each evening (no algebra required, so he made out OK).
It was the lunch hour, so Gundersen broke off his recollections to take up his post at the cash register. David Pearsons came in and sat at the butcher block with a cup of kielbasa soup, facing a sign that read “Smokers and Chewers will please spit on each other, and not on the floor.” Pearsons has been coming to the store since he was a teen in the Teagle era. Now he’s 50 and works as a property caretaker.
“Quite a group of people come in for coffee in the morning,” he said. “Pretty much a local hangout.” They talk about “what everybody’s doing that day, what they’re going to be doing for work.”
Gundersen would often be in the background, swapping out coffee filters or running the register. He seldom spoke, and never about politics, spurning suggestions that he should be more welcoming by smiling ebulliently.
“I see pictures of myself making an active effort to smile,” he said, “and it looks like I’m making an active effort to smile.”
The flow of people was sometimes dizzying in the variety of their needs and dispositions.
“It’s a place where information can be transmitted, you know. People can stick their head in and say, when Jim stops by, will you tell him I’m going to be at so and so? And Jim will stop by. And we’ll tell him,” Gundersen said. “People can leave packages to be picked up, which they do. People will leave notes for each other. People will say, ‘I have a little problem with child care. If I have my daughter get off the bus at your stop, can she just wait in the store with me for a while?’ Of course she can.”
The modest lunch rush—never more than four or five in the store at any one time—began to come in and place orders at the deli, their backs to a stand holding yellow plastic bats and kites with brightly colored pictures of dragons, eagles and demons.
A young man with a big beard and a pencil hanging down from his winter hat said he’d like his sandwich cut in half. While he waited, he glanced idly at a book prominently displayed next to a cheddar cheese wheel. The book, You Never Can Tell, which SwallowTail Press in Pennsylvania published last summer, was written by Gundersen.
It’s a collection of his newspaper columns for the Vermont Standard, many of which are based on his experiences minding the shop, which shares the building with the Pomfret post office.
From 1989 to 1992, on Friday nights from 8 p.m. to midnight, Gundersen hosted Rock ‘n’ Roll Memories, a radio show on WKXE in White River Junction. Between the radio show and the newspaper column, customers began to realize the quiet shopkeeper in their midst was passionate about music and literature. They began talking rock ‘n’ roll, and their favorite reads. Gundersen said he’s welcomed the conversations.
“It hasn’t brought me out of my shell so much as maybe it’s brought other people into my shell.”
At the end of each day, Gundersen wiped down the hot dog maker and the deli slicer and the sandwich board.
Cleanliness is important here. In 1992, he began bringing his standard poodle, Boswell, into the store. After a few years, a state health official said Boswell had to go.
“The health inspector said I’m sorry. I know you’ll miss him,” Gundersen said. “I said, well, not only will we miss him, but he’s the one that makes all the salads.”
In part because it’s difficult to pin down the definition of a general store, there is no exact count of how many exist in Vermont. But it’s clear the number is smaller than it used to be. In Country Stores of Vermont: A History and Guide, author Dennis Bathory Kitsz said each of Vermont’s 251 townships once had at least one, and sometimes two or three.
Jack Garvin, who’s owned the Warren Store for the past 38 years and has held leadership positions in the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, guesses that there are only about 80 left in the state.
“Two or three seem to go under every year,” he said.
In the Upper Valley, the Brownsville General Store in West Windsor closed in February, while the Cornish General Store opened in 2017 after being closed for four years. As the stores have moved out of the economic mainstream and into history, civic-minded preservationists have acted to prop up certain beloved institutions as part of a larger effort to strengthen downtowns and village centers.
In 2011, the seemingly defunct Guilford Country Store reopened with help from a $65,000 grant from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and in 2013, the 180-year-old Barnard General Store was purchased for $500,000 and reopened by the Barnard Community Trust. Elsewhere in the state, the Putney General Store is in a building owned by the Putney Historical Society and the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation helped to reopen the J.J.Hapgood General Store in Peru in 2013.
Garvin said the charming crooked floors and odd angles of a general store often come with high maintenance costs, while the availability of goods on the Internet has also been a challenge. To compete, Garvin looks for eye-catching offerings, like quarter-pound cookies and craft beers.
The evolution from soda crackers to Pop Tarts can be seen in the Teago General Store, where one shelf is lined with products of yesteryear-bottles and tins of Rexall Quik-Bands, Dainty Dot Whole Caraway Seeds, Knox Gelatine, and Yale Smoking Tobacco by the Marbling Brothers of Baltimore. Beneath are the goods for sale, representing the tastes and brand names of a new generation—Hunt’s Manwich, Hormel Corned Beef Hash, Lindsay Manzanilla Olives and Harpoon Cider.
In the general store industry, the yardstick for success is smaller than other enterprises, said Gundersen.
“I say, ‘Well, I never made a lot of money,’ and they say, ‘No, keeping a store going in the general store milieu is success.'”
Gundersen’s relationship with his customers didn’t happen all at once. But it happened. As he spoke at the butcher block, a regular—Terry Davis—caught his eye and rushed him.
“Hi, Terry,” he said.
She enfolded his frame in her arms, unleashing a torrent of words.
“I want to thank you for everything,” she gushed. “I just read it in the paper. I’m not sure—I’m hoping I will see you on Saturday. But I am wishing you and Alice an amazing retirement, and I can’t wait to see you around the neighborhood.”
“You will,” managed Gundersen, before she leaned back and put her hand on his cheek, looking directly into his face. “You’ve brought us such wonderful times, and I will hold onto and cherish those moments. Best to you. You have been a joy. And I can’t thank you enough for keeping this little store going.”
“Thanks,” Gundersen mumbled, his voice suddenly husky.
“Kathleen will do the same,” she said. “She will do so good. I will hopefully see you on Saturday”
“OK,” said Gundersen, “but I was hoping I would see you before, just to do that,” she said, referencing the hug.
“Thank you,” said Gundersen. And she was gone. Outpourings of affection that have come since he announced the sale have meant a lot to Gundersen. Some say his taciturn nature was a boon—a woman wrote him a note that she appreciated he’d never spread gossip or betrayed a confidence.
“I think that my one claim to a place in Pomfret history might be,” he said, “that I’m going to end up having been the most hugged person in the history of this town.”
When he decided to retire, the thought of putting his beloved store on the market was chilling.
“That’s obviously a crapshoot,” he said. “The idea that the store would not survive was really something that troubled me.”
That’s why, in April, he approached Kathleen Dolan, owner of the nonprofit ArtisTree and asked if she might be interested in buying it from him.
Gundersen’s deli counter kept the Teago General Store alive for 30 years. He said he’s confident Dolan will take the next step.
Dolan, 55, first came to know Gundersen as a “very, very quiet” presence in the store, but one day she struck up a conversation while he was selling some old records. “That day, I realized he was actually very warm and friendly,” she said.
Like Gundersen, Dolan was a customer before she bought the store, and like Teagle, she’s a civic-minded philanthropist from New York City. She moved to the area while pregnant with her daughter 15 years ago. In addition to buying the ArtisTree property, she renovated the adjacent Teago Grange Hall into an active performance hall and bought a lot across the street, where she knocked down a private residence to improve the view. She also purchased 36 acres on the far side of the store from the Woodstock Inn and Resort. The restoration of the grange, and the flow of traffic associated with ArtisTree have, Dolan said, helped to breathe life into the neighborhood. Her acquisition of the Teago General Store will help her to continue that process, she said.
The post office will stay, but “we’re probably going to phase out the grocery store aspects, the Clorox and Carnation instant milk. It’s probably going to be more of an eat-in type place,” with an emphasis on local foods and products. She said she’s hoping to put a porch on the side of the building facing ArtisTree. She’s considering an ice cream bar and an outdoor seating area. Her interest in managing the store is long-term, and she expects her tenure will last “for decades and decades.”
Gundersen’s send-off included a farewell party on a recent Saturday, and his final day in the store was Jan. 19. The next chapter of his life includes more whimsical pursuits.
“I was talking with Alice about this, and one of the things that I would really like to do is learn algebra,” Gundersen said. “It’s just not possible that that’s beyond me. I should be able to learn algebra. So, I have the time. I’m going to take a class somewhere.”
His time at the store has helped him socially. He’s still uncomfortable with people until he’s gotten to know them, he said. But that’s not the obstacle it once was.
“By now,” he said, “I’ve gotten to know everybody.”
By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING, Valley News
Information from: Lebanon Valley News, http://www.vnews.com
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