Two New England Dreams
Welcome to the July 2013 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH.
Two New England Dreams
Operating an inn or country store seems to be the ultimate lifelong fantasy for many. But, beware, there are pitfalls…
Over the years I’ve often talked with people who tell me their ultimate dream would be to “quit the rat race” and buy a country store or an historic old New England inn. The late Norman Simpson, author of Country Inns and Back Roads, once told me that owning an inn was, indeed, a realistic dream for those who (like Norman did) possessed such qualities as “showmanship, a good head for business, and, most important, an attitude toward people that’s service-oriented.”
He had words of warning, too. “If your marriage is shaky, forget it,” he said, “and if you tend to have an alcohol problem, the problem will increase.”
Finally, he had another warning for new inn owners. They must get by what he called “the danger year.” That, he said, was the third year when new owners are apt to think they’ve made it. As a consequence, they expand far too quickly “and then go down the tube.”
A former airline stewardess (as they were once called) I knew, who, with her husband bought the Barrows House in Dorset, Vermont, back in 1972, confessed that in reality “running an inn is like being on an airplane that never lands.”
Now there can be money in owning a general store in a New England town—if you’re willing to work seventy or more hours a week, build up a good inventory and then, in maybe four or five years, sell. It helps to live in the apartment upstairs, too.
Certainly a pitfall in storekeeping is extending credit. Most don’t. A friend of mine who had been raised in Lewiston, Maine, once recalled to me how a Lewiston store owner known as “Big Jim” wouldn’t get much business when people had cash in their pockets. During those prosperous times, they would trade at the chain supermarkets where prices were lower. But when times were bad, Big Jim’s store was always crowded with people buying on credit.
“One year,” my Lewiston friend enjoyed recalling, “Big Jim had so darn much business he almost went bankrupt.”
Today, as anyone who has traveled back-country New England knows, there are still plenty of old-fashioned general stores—at least one in every community. “But do you know of any that are for sale?” visiting out-of-staters will often ask me. My uncle, the late Robb Sagendorph, founder of Yankee Magazine in 1935, probably had the best answer for that question. He’d simply reply, “I don’t know of any that aren’t.”
That would probably go for inns, too.