General stores had their heyday between 1820 and 1860, when income was rising and the population was growing. Like the Hope General Store, they generally stood at crossroads. They were informal, though some might say bare bones, with bare wood floors, a hodgepodge of goods along wooden shelves, a cat cuddled up by the stove, and smells of apples, cheese, coffee and tobacco.
General stores served as centers of town life, where regular customers exchanged gossip and opinions. The storekeeper often doubled as postmaster and provided a link to the outside world. He likely educated himself from the books and magazines he carried and from his buying trips to big cities. The townspeople generally respected him.
Dozens of the old general stores survive in New England. Visitors often comment they remind them of a Norman Rockwell painting, with a smell of apples and coffee.
General stores have experienced something of a revival. The Wall Street Journal called them ‘one part country store, one part concept shop’ with a personal take on merchandise and serving as an informal community center.
The exact age of a general store is often hard to determine. Records are sketchy and claims sometimes exaggerated. And one general store that dates to 1788 – Gray’s, in Little Compton, Rhode Island – has an uncertain status. It closed in 2012 when its owner died, but then reopened as an antiques shop.
If you know of any great old general stores in New England, please add it to our comment section.
The Colebrook Store is the oldest continuously operating general store in Connecticut. Founded in 1812, it operated until 2007, when it closed down. In December 2014 it reopened under the new management of Jodi Marinelli.
The store is just a stone’s throw from Town Hall in the center of Colebrook, a town in Litchfield Country. It was owned by Martin and Solomon Rockwell, one of the founding families of Colebrook. Julius Rockwell became a judge and, in 1854, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. The Rockwells also built the Colebrook Inn, which houses town offices and the historical society.
The Colebrook Store changed hands several times. In July 2007, owner Lora Murphy put out a sign that said, ‘closed for vacation.’ She never reopened.
In 2003, the Colebrook Preservation Society bought the building for $85,000. Five years later, Marinelli signed a lease on the building and moved with her family into the second floor above the store. Today the store serves breakfast and lunch, and sells groceries, candy, baked goods and knick knacks.
It’s located at 559 Colebrook Road in Colebrook, Conn.
Hope General Store
At the Hope General Store you can get much of what you need and learn most of what’s going on in the small farming community of Hope, Maine.
The store sits at the crossroads at the center of town, just outside of Camden. There’s a blacksmith across the street and a carpenter next door. Built in 1832, it’s been a Grange hall, an antique store, and a post office.
The closing of the store in the late 1990s left a hole in the town, but a new owner brought it back to life as a year-round business. In 2014, another new owner put in new heating and cooling systems and a generator, but kept the small town magic of the store. An updated menu features sandwiches made with brie and caramelized onion, and the beverage selection runs from champagne to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Also for sale: the requisite penny candy, maple syrup, candles, and local honey.
The Hope General Store is at 449 Camden Rd., Hope, Maine.
Davolls General Store
Davolls is at the mercantile center of the Russells Mills historic district in Dartmouth, Mass., down the road from the fire station. Its owners included a series of prominent Dartmouth families: Howland, Russell, Allen, Slocum, Tucker.
William Howland bought the building in 1792, and opened a general goods shop. In the latter half of the 19th century it was known as Slocum’s until the Davoll family bought it in the early 20th century. Wilfred and Virginia Morrison and their daughter Beverly bought it in 1974. Wilfred told the New Bedford Standard Times, “We stand around and solve all the problems of the world.”
The family sold the store in 2016 to Kim Arruda and Jim Chouinard. The couple then spent a year and a half renovating it. They found boat knees and a felt hat from the nineteenth century inside the walls of the old building. Today they sell penny candy, maple syrup, bread, jewelry and beach towels – among other things — from the freshly painted store right next to the Wild Honey Café.
Davoll’s is at 1228 Russell’s Mills Road, Dartmouth, Mass.
Old Country Store and Museum
The Old Country Store and Museum in Moultonborough in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region may be the oldest general store in the country. The Holden family, which runs the historic store, has records dating to 1781. It has also been home to a library and the post office. Town Meetings used to be held at the store.
Town founder Jonathan Moulton was deeded the land on which the store stands for his service in the American Revolution. He sold it to Samuel Burnham, ‘with barn frame thereon,’ in 1777, who sold it in 1779 to a trader named George Freese. Records show Bradbury Richardson worked for Freese in exchange for goods in 1781. A map of New Hampshire printed in 1784 shows the store as the only building in that part of Moultonborough.
Today it’s a Lakes Region tourist attraction. A wooden Indian stands guard at the entrance to the store chockablock with merchandise: bobblehead dolls, coffee mugs, bomber hats, t-shirts, shoes, candles, cookware, maple syrup and toys.
The Old Country Store and Museum is at 1011 Whittier Highway, Moultonborough, N.H.
Brown & Hopkins Country Store
“A Destination for Generations,” boasts the owner of the Brown & Hopkins Country Store. She is named neither Brown nor Hopkins, but Elizabeth Yuill, and she bought the store in 2004.
Located on Putnam Pike, which runs through the village of Chepachet in Glocester, Rhode Island, the store is crammed with primitive country wares. It also features a penny candy display on a 24-foot pine checkout counter from the nineteenth century.
A Timothy Wilmarth built the wooden building, now painted green, as a home and a hattery. It became a general store in 1809 when Ira Evans bought it, and it’s been one without interruption ever since.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Hopkins (James and William) gave the store its present name when they bought it in 1921. For years they sold utilitarian items like brooms, long underwear, rifles, and coffee.
Then in the 1970s, country decorating became the rage and the store went into the business with a vengeance. It still sells reproduction country furniture and accessories, as well as clothing, local foods, a grab-and-go café, and, of course, candles.
1179 Putnam Pike, Chepachet, R.I.
Dorset Union Store
On the outside, the Dorset Union Store looks the same as it did in 1816, the year it opened. And it still has the same bell above the door that announces customers, the way it did two centuries ago.
The store presides over Dorset Green in the center of the town, which overlooks the Taconic Mountains. Not surprisingly, the Dorset Union store belongs to the Dorset Historic District, notable for its uniform white clapboard buildings. Some of the sidewalks are made of marble from the nearby quarries.
During a hiatus from 1955 to 2007, the store was called Peltiers, but new owners restored the original name. They also expanded the wine room and added a bakery and deli. You can buy fresh produce as well as Vermont products at the store, or grab a sandwich and eat outside at a picnic table on the green.
Dorset Union Store, 31 Church St., Dorset, Vt .
Photos: Colebrook Store By Jerry Dougherty – http://public.fotki.com/GCDOUGHERTY/connecticut/national_register/colebrook_center.html, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29560503;Davolls General Store By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimeadia.org/w/index.php?curid=9112639; Dorset Union Store and Brown & Hopkins Country Store courtesy Google Maps.
This story about general stores was updated in 2020.