When the Hebron Village Store went out of business two years ago, it threatened to take this tiny community in rural New Hampshire right along with it. Few folks attended the church across from the village green, and the town clerk's office opened only four hours a week. Suddenly, local residents had nowhere within half a dozen miles to buy a 50-cent cup of coffee or a gallon of milk, to read the newspaper or swap gossip.
Their frustration grew until, in the spirit of Yankee ingenuity, natives and newcomers alike banded together to save their general store, a sacrosanct symbol of small-town New England. Seventeen families formed a collective to purchase the business and run it themselves, and more than half of the village's estimated 400 inhabitants pitched in with donations--from boxes of cake mix to movie videos--to stock its vacant shelves in time for opening day in September.
Nearly four months later, the store hums with conversation on a recent afternoon, and manager Norton Braley offers a special of chicken fritters and French fries for $3.95 plus tax along with his dose of daily wisdom. Deer hunting and cribbage champion plaques hang on a wall near the lunch counter, while a couple at a table near the window leisurely sort through their mail from the post office next door.
"This place is important because we don't have anything else," said Mark Braley, 47, a regular customer and one of Norton Braley's three children. "It's the only place you see people. It's the only place to find out what's going on."
Here in the remote hills of New Hampshire, about 60 miles northwest of Manchester, the general store has become as much a social lifeline as it was a century ago when mills dominated the commercial New England landscape. Against modern retail giants, stores like this one, from Peltier's Market in Vermont to the Brewster Store in Massachusetts, endure across the Northeast with their aura of nostalgia and peculiar mix of goods.
As important, they play their part in the region's distinctive village ensembles, and a seemingly timeless identity hangs in the balance each time a piece of the tableau--a church, schoolhouse, town hall or general store--disappears, said Joseph Conforti, a professor of American and New England Studies at the University of Southern Maine.
"It's sort of the ambiance of New England," said Conforti, author of a soon-to-be-published book, "Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the 20th Century."
"It's the sense that if the general store changes, this is a significant alteration in the cultural terrain."
Hebron, in particular, has barely felt the passage of time, locals said. Like a setting conjured by Thornton Wilder, Christmas wreaths and red ribbons lace a gazebo on the village common, where an American flag flies high above a stone war monument, and the clapboard Hebron Congregational Church and white picket fences off Church Lane look the same today as when Braley was born here 71 years ago.
The original Hebron Village Store, which dates to the 1800s, burned down in 1945 and was rebuilt two years later. The business eventually succumbed to high rent and low profits in October 1997, and its abandoned veranda and shuttered windows lent the town center a dismal air. "I missed it terribly when it was closed," recalled Raymond Wirth, an 84-year-old in a flannel jacket and cowboy hat nursing a Styrofoam cup of coffee at the lunch counter on a recent weekday. "There was always a place to go and talk and have a coffee and even have a meal. Otherwise, it was a 10-mile run."
Fed up with the situation, Donald Gibson, 65, who retired from IBM and moved here from upstate New York several years ago, approached Braley, who was one of the previous store owners. They rallied the community and held some meetings, and a group of residents--more than half of them retirees--bought 23 shares at $12,000 apiece in the newly created Hebron Common Limited Liability Corp., raising $276,000 for the store and earning moderate interest on their investment. Braley himself cashed in a life insurance policy to also get on board, and one remaining share is still up for sale.
Shareholders lease property from the corporation for $1 a year and earn income primarily from two upstairs rental apartments and an attached post office, Gibson said.
Business is up, but Braley and his partner, Lisa Norman, 35, expect to be able to pay only 20 percent of the store's taxes after the first year and have asked town officials for help.
No one expects to make serious money from the venture, Gibson said, even though they expanded the store to include breakfast pizza, T-shirts and video rentals as well as fly swatters and unbreakable pocket combs. In fact, many of the investors spend winters in Florida and have little genuine need for the store at all, he said.
Still, one person enthusiastically donated a microwave oven, and Braley's grandson sacrificed his personal movie collection in time for opening day. Yet another resident changed the door locks on the store for free. "It was always about a social kind of thing," Gibson said. "The money part of it was just sufficient to make it possible."
The revived sense of community is especially poignant now that Hebron Village School, which was one of New Hampshire's few remaining two-room schoolhouses, has closed.
The store attracts everyone from construction workers to children, including a second-grader who challenges the older men to cribbage--and wins. So attached are regulars to the place, they get upset when their favorite chair already is taken, Braley said.
"So many people enjoy the laughing and the kidding and the joking, it's comical," he said. "They come in for the entertainment."
CAPTION: Raymond Wirth, 84, takes a coffee break at the lunch counter of the reopened village store in Hebron, N.H., population 400.