If You Can’t Find It at Willey’s Store, You Don’t Really Need It
By Lorrie Baumann
The Willey’s Store is as much a social and cultural hub for the small town of Greensboro, Vermont, as it is a country mercantile that stocks hardware and clothing as well as grocery staples and a selection of specialty foods that includes what Cheesemaker Mateo Kehler acknowledges as the best display of Jasper Hill cheeses in the country. The clothing, the hardware and the grocery staples appeal primarily to the community’s 600-700 full-time residents, while the fancier food adds to the joy of a summer house on the lake for the thousands of vacationers who flood into Greensboro every year between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Rob W. Hurst is the fifth-generation storekeeper at the Willey’s Store. “My grandmother was born in a room right above the cash registers,” he says.
His title has been President and Chairman of the Board since 2010, when he gave up his corporate job in the information technology department at Central Vermont Public Service to take over the store. “It’s what I wanted to do when I was younger,” he says of his decision to come home to Greensboro and mind the store. “Anyone I worked for when I was younger, I always told them that if I ever got a chance to come home, I would. Greensboro takes pride in the store, and Greensboro is growing at the same time.”
Greensboro began as a blockhouse along the Bayley Hazen Military Road, which was built by George Washington’s order in the anticipation that it might be needed if the Continental Army staged an invasion of Canada. Today, the name of that road has been memorialized by Bayley Hazen Blue, a Cellars of Jasper Hill cheese that was honored in 2014 as the “World’s Best Unpasteurized Cheese” at the World Cheese Awards.
That cheese and others from Cellars at Jasper Hill, which also calls Greensboro home, are part of the array of local products that Hurst stocks in the grocery that fills most of Willey’s Store’s ground floor. Hardware occupies the remainder of the ground floor, and an upstairs level offers clothing. Willey’s Store is a True Value hardware store and also a proud member of Associated Grocers of New England, and if you can’t find what you were looking for at Willey’s Store, chances are good that you don’t really need it. “Our specialty is definitely local products, made in Vermont,” Hurst says. “This area is very economically depressed, so not only do I have to have the premium items; I also have to have the staple groceries for those who live year-round up here.”
Other local products include cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses by three or four other farms within a few miles of the store, fresh produce, milk, yogurt, honey, chicken, pork and beef, as well as baked goods from Connie’s Kitchen and Bien Fait Bakery, which is gaining a national following for its Christmas fruitcakes. “A lot of local folks will make wreaths for the Christmas season and we sell those. We have folks who have nurseries, so we get bouquets of flowers,” Hurst says. “Our local eggs fly out of here faster than we can get them in.”
“Some national brands probably got their beginning on our shelves,” he adds. “Local movement is particularly strong up here. A lot of local folks are motivated to buy here to help us keep going, and that’s probably a huge factor in why we’ve been here for so long.”
Summer tourists buy the Cellars at Jasper Hill cheeses, Willey’s Store t-shirts and sweatshirts, toiletries in travel sizes, charging cords and cables that might have been forgotten at home as well as the groceries for their meals while they’re staying in their rental homes. Very often, those folks come in knowing that they need to shop for dinner, but they don’t have a plan for what they’ll be cooking, so Hurst and his staff do some of their merchandising around simple menus that they can suggest to their customers – very nearly a home-grown meal kit proposition in which they’ll suggest a local protein first – whatever’s on special – and then follow up suggestions for the side dishes and the wine pairing – all to help shoppers come quickly to their purchasing decisions so they can clear the store efficiently and free up a parking space outside for another customer. “Much as a restaurant depends on turning tables, we have to manage parking,” Hurst says, explaining that Willey’s Store has a few parking places in front of the building and there’s a small public parking lot across the street that also serves other nearby shops and municipal services. “If someone comes in and spends hours at the library, that’s a parking space I don’t have.”
The heavy emphasis on locally produced products helps to support the rural community that’s dependent on the dollars spent by summer tourists. They come to Vermont to spend a week or two at a time in the lakeside houses that were once family summer camps and are now mostly rental units operated by extended families who live and work elsewhere. Those families, often adult brothers and sisters who grew up spending whole summers at their family camps on the shores of Caspian Lake, now often come back to Greensboro only for the few days in spring that are required to open up the houses for the summer season and then again in fall to shut them up for the winter, leaving the town to its 600 to 700 permanent residents.
In the summertime, the town’s population swells to 2,000 or more, doubling the amount of business that comes into Willey’s Store during the week. Hurst is hoping that Kehler’s community development dreams of creating a critical mass of artisanal cheesemaking will help create a vibrant year-round economy for the small town. “As the population of Greensboro grays, there are a lot of houses on the main street that are dark because they only come up for the summer. I need to have year-round customers,” Hurst says. “By staying local and trying to edge toward the $15 min wage, employees will be able to afford to live in the area, so that every light in every house is on year-round. I have it in the back of my head as a goal, but the reality is that I have to accept the resort town mentality to keep us going.”
Depending on the time of year, 30 to 45 employees keep his five cash registers running at the front of the store. Grocery Manager Steve Collier is the 117-year-old store’s longest-serving employee. “He’s been here for at least 25 years,” Hurst said. “People know him.” Hurst himself, now 46, is the fifth generation in his family to work in the store, where he’s sometimes known as “the new Rob,” since his father, also a Rob, still works at the store too. The family’s sixth generation, Hurst’s nieces, Nakaya and Bionca Samuel, are still in college, and it’s too soon yet to know if they’ll ever join the store’s staff, Hurst says. “They’re enjoying their early 20s – out and about,” he says. “They’re enjoying life, but I did the same thing – went off to college, and it wasn’t until I was in the early 40s before I came back here.”