The small Village Store in Francestown, New Hampshire, served residents and visitors to the Granite State for more than 200 years. A mainstay of the northern New England hamlet, the Store could claim to be the second oldest continuously run store in America. They sold coffee, bread, beer—you name it; “We used to buy everything here, meat and everything,” one local resident told the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.
But in July of this year the little market shut its doors, blaming in part the high overhead and thin margins, as well as the loss of some particularly profitable gas pumps last year: “Everybody who buys it thinks they’re going to make $1 million, but they’re not going to,” one former owner of the Store declared with typically terse Yankee wisdom.
But news of the closure soon spread beyond New Hampshire, eventually reaching large national papers like the Wall Street Journal. Soon after the Journal piece appeared, a local official in Francestown received an unexpected call from an anonymous outsider, as NHPR’s Todd Bookman and Peter Biello recently reported. Biello and Bookman talked to Sarah Pyle, a member of the town’s Historical Society, who recounted the tale:
“Jamie Pike, our Town Administrator, literally picked up the phone one day and there was a gentleman who asked the name of the bank that holds the mortgage on the Village Store. Jamie wasn't sure why the gentleman was calling and gave him the name and contact information and then the next thing he heard was the guy calling back saying, ‘My plan is buy the property from the bank pay the back taxes and donate it to either the town or the Historical Society.’ His preference, as it turned out, was the Historical Society, and as it turned out it worked best for us, too.”
The donor—who insists on remaining unnamed—has no personal connection to Francestown (he appears to come from Nevada!). He was just “enchanted by the story and by the sense he had of how much the store means to Francestown,” Pyle said. The donation amounts to nearly $125,000, which is enough to buy the property back from the bank and settle any municipal liens.
There are still challenges to keeping the Store open going forward. In a town of only 1,500 residents, every dollar counts. But residents have noticed the Store’s absence in the brief time since its closing. “You drive through town now and it feels like there is something really missing,” said Pyle, whose Historical Society is now responsible for running the Store: “In just the month it hasn’t been there, I don't think we realized how much it mattered to the heart of Francestown to have that store. And it feels naked now, it feels like the body doesn't have a heart anymore. I don't know how better to put it. It is important to our community. [It’s] the center for our community and it's important that we bring it back.”
The late Peter Lawler once rhapsodized the communal benefits of McDonald’s, where customers—especially the elderly—could meet and chat over cheap coffee. Such stores help anchor small towns or urban neighborhoods with a platform for unplanned, casual interactions. All the more so for veritable villages like Francestown, where downtown stores serve as meeting places, newsstands, grocery stores, and gas stations all in one.
So a wakeup call for these lucky New Hampshirites, made possible by the spontaneous generosity of a charitably inclined stranger. Here’s hoping the residents of Francestown can keep the Store going another 200 years.