LAKE ELMORE, Vt. — There's always some kind of project waiting to be done at a small but busy general store like the Elmore Store.
Like so many similar stores around Vermont, it is the town meeting place, somewhere to stop for a dozen eggs, pick up the daily mail and catch up on a bit of local gossip.
But, like other stores, it needs repairs that owners Kathy and Warren Miller would like to make but cannot afford, at least not right now. Their money is tied up in inventory like fishing hooks and fresh produce and videotapes--all the types of things the rest of America buys at Wal-Mart or Kmart.
It's tough to compete against those big retailers and the growing number of convenience stores that are trying to fashion themselves as latter-day general stores. So Lyman Orton, who made his fortune capitalizing on the country stores' near-mythical reputation, is trying to help them survive.
Orton will spend $20,000 a year to fund six awards that will recognize outstanding storekeepers and spruce up some of the state's best general stores. "The idea of community stores is something we think is important to the state of Vermont," said Orton, who owns The Vermont Country Store mail order catalog business.
"They're not these trademark stores. They all have their own personality," he said. "We wanted to do anything we can to make sure that the heritage and history of Vermont is passed down, and this is part of that."
It's a brilliant idea, one that has worked well in helping to preserve and restore historic barns around the state, said Thomas Visser, a University of Vermont history professor and head of the university's historic preservation program.
"Vermont's country stores have traditionally served as the social and commercial focal point of communities large and small across the state," Visser said.
"What they provide in this era of big-box retailing is an opportunity for local residents to greet each other, to talk to each other and to reestablish a sense of community that is being eroded in this modern age."
Rare is the Vermont town that does not have a general store like the Millers' to anchor its village center and provide a focal point for the community.
In Elmore, there's not much besides the Millers' store. And it is a busy place. People stop by all day to buy a tank of gas or get a cup of coffee, rent videotapes or drop off their dry cleaning. The village's post office is in the back and it's the only place nearby to pick up a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk on the way home, short of driving the five miles or so to the big supermarkets in Morrisville.
"We have a lot of really loyal local support," Kathy Miller said.
Still, she mused about what she and her husband would do with $5,000 if she were to win one of Orton's awards. She said she would love to use some of it to hire someone to fill in for her while she spent time at the town clerk's office researching the history of the store and the building that houses it.
"I'm from Elmore and it's just really important to me to preserve the past but still, at the same time, we have to serve the needs of 1996," she said.
Toward that end, she and her husband put in a ramp for disabled customers a few years ago. But they still would like to shore up the second-story porch, and the south side of the building could use a coat of paint.
"And if I ever won the lottery, above this ceiling is a tin ceiling," she said, pointing to white panels overhead crisscrossed by fake beams that she dreams of ripping out some day.
Orton said he hoped he could help people like the Millers, who care passionately about their businesses and the role they play in the community.
As part of the Country Store's 50th anniversary celebration, Orton is teaming with the Preservation Trust of Vermont to establish the Local Storekeeper Award.
Orton will put up two $5,000 awards and four $2,500 awards to recognize exceptional country stores worth preserving. The money is intended for capital improvements.
"We like the thought of bequeathing our communities to future generations and encouraging people who live in them to think more that way," he said.