Eighteen years ago, a dozen male residents of Maple Corner, a village of 200 in the Town of Calais, just north of Montpelier, took off their clothes to pose for a calendar to raise money for their popular but run-down community center. The community center needed a new septic system, roof, and a paint job. Bake sales and raffles weren’t cutting it. That calendar, featuring “The Men of Maple Corner,” made a splash across the state. How could it miss with the subjects discretely covering their privates with the likes of a chain saw, a sap bucket, a guitar – whatever was a favorite work-a-day tool! The guys made national news, including an appearance on the “Today Show” with a visibly charmed Katie Couric. Some $500,000 was raised.
Now, in that same spirit, the community is fundraising again, but this time everyone is fully clothed. A group of locals is hoping to raise $450,000 through the sale of shares to buy the Maple Corner Store.
At a time when general stores are struggling across Vermont, the result of competition from 7-Elevens, Internet sales and big box stores, no one in Maple Corner wants to lose the Maple Corner Store. For several weeks now the group has been fundraising, seeking pledges to buy shares in a corporation that would own and operate the store. The business would be renamed “The Maple Corner Community Store.”
The group already has pledges approaching $300,000 but raising the final $150,000 by the November 1, 2109 deadline remains a challenge, organizers say. As required by law, potential investors are forewarned they may never see a financial return. Instead, they are reminded of other intangible benefits, both emotional and practical.
There’s been a store at the existing spot in the neighborhood for quite a spell, so in a sense, shareholders will buy into a piece of history. The store’s first iteration was the Red Shop, a mid-19th-century dry goods store run by Abdiel Kent, of the Kent Family, members of whom were among the area’s earliest residents. The business saw change over the decades: a blacksmith shop and machine shop were added in the early 20th century; it became “Lackey’s Store,” a general store in 1925; in 1945, ailing financially, the store merged with the nearby Adamant Co-op; and then, sadly, the sprawling wood-framed building burned to the ground in 1947. It was rebuilt, and since 1973 the Maple Corner Store has been held privately by various owners, the last being Artie and Nancy Toulis. Nancy grew up in Maple Corner. For the past 12 years, the Toulises have been saving locals the hassles of driving 10 miles to Montpelier on emergency runs for milk, eggs, bread or beer. At the Maple Corner Store one can also buy a sandwich or a pizza, mail a package at the Postal Service counter, visit with a neighbor over coffee, or, for the past seven years enjoy drinks and live music at the Whammy Bar in the back, one of Central Vermont’s more unusual music venues. As intimate as a British country pub, the Whammy is open three nights a week.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like in the village without the Maple Corner Store,” says Chris Miller, 61, a sculptor best known for the newly carved Ceres statue that graces the Vermont State House. (He was also “Mr. February” in the Men of Maple Corner calendar). Two years ago, Miller and store employee, Anne Marie Shea, worried about the future of the store and their community, hatched this idea of investor ownership.
“The Maple Corner Store is where children wait for the school bus; where neighbors catch up on who is in the hospital or having a baby; it’s where the older kids (including his own when they were teenagers) get their first real job,” he says.
Miller was getting his caffeine fix when he and Shea, who is expected to become store manager, were worrying aloud about whether the store might turn into an apartment or office building or something else way less inviting than a general store.
“Someone had just come into the store possibly to buy it, but it had already been on the market for a long time, and Annie and I both remarked it would be tough to find anyone who would do as much for the community as Nancy and Artie,” Miller said. He mentions that the couple, besides selling groceries, has sponsored or helped with Fourth of July parades, community suppers at the community center, Halloween events for kids, outdoor concerts, and, every winter, a Mardi Gras celebration on the ice on Curtis Pond. “Annie and I agreed that the only way to guarantee continuity would be for the community to buy the store.” Their idea caught on. An exploratory committee was formed. A board of directors was established. Fundraising teams went to work. A business plan was prepared. Many meetings were held. The community center agreed to accept tax-deductible donations and become an investor.
The plan was officially unveiled at a community-wide meeting at the Maple Corner Community Center last month, an event that drew a crowd of 75 people, many of whom immediately made financial pledges. Another meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 6, during the Community Center’s Fall Foliage Festival. The board also holds informational meetings weekly at 7 p.m. at the Whammy Bar.
What’s in store for the store? No one should expect major change immediately, says Jamie Moorby, 36, who grew up across the road from the store, worked there behind the counter as a teenager and now is on the eight member corporate board.
“Really, what Artie and Nancy are doing has been working, so we’ll just slowly build on what’s in place,” says Moorby, who is expected to be the store’s assistant manager. She explains that any significant changes down the road will have to be approved by the board with advice from shareholders at annual or special meetings. She also explains the $450,000 price tag includes $75,000 for inventory, repairs and an expansion of the septic system.
Miller says the campaign to buy the store can’t help but remind him of the fundraising with the calendar. “‘The Men of Maple Corner’ brought lots of people in the village together, maybe 100 people, who opened mail, processed orders, handled public relations. It took months of work, and it resulted in tremendous community bonding, and this has the very same flavor,” he says.
“People are saying, ‘What can I do to help?’ and they are presenting every skill from carpentry to accounting,” Miller said. “But some also have asked why we just didn’t do another calendar,” he continued. “And the reason is we wanted people to become part of this permanently, and the best way to do that is to have them become owners.”
In other words, own a piece of the store, and that’s where you’ll likely buy your gallon of milk.