Something Old,Something New!
T HERE IS NO DOUBT ABOUT IT: THE TOWN OF
Woodstock is a destination point for folks who visit
Vermont. The pristine downtown, with its white-pillared,
red brick town hall, the prestigious Woodstock Inn, and
a plethora of interesting shops to explore, has become familiar
material to most all travel guide writers and their followers.
But, a scant five miles south of town on Route 161 there
is another Woodstock—the village of South Woodstock, to be
exact—where a visitor might think the clocks tick a bit more
leisurely than they do in the rest of this busy world. A place you
can get to fast, for sure—but where you can take things slow.
And a place where there is a rather amazing little country store
that is enjoying a renaissance and the rapt attention of the community
On the clear, cold day I visited, I drove via Routes 100 and 4
over Terrible Mountain and through Ludlow, and then Tyson
and Bridgewater Corners. There was still ice on parts of Lake
Rescue, where I spied a bald eagle soaring overhead, intent on
searching for prey, oblivious to traffic buzzing by on the highway.
Winter was loosening its grip on Vermont, albeit slowly;
a shuttered, dark brown sugarhouse I passed by was still buried
in snow, looking like a storybook gingerbread house that
was sagging under a generous dollop of frosting. On another day I might have made the trip via Gassetts and North Springfield over
Route 106, past the side roads lying close to the South Woodstock
village with names such as Horse Shoe Hill and Morgan
Hill Road, eventually coming upon a place called the Vermont
Country Horse Store…just past the Green Mountain Horse As-
sociation’s expansive equestrian center. Yes, it is indeed horse country, as well as a rural area that supports a bona fide country store with all the fixings, paradoxically just a few minutes away from a small Vermont supermarket, and farther east, the big-box stores in neighboring New Hampshire.The red, wood-frame building of the South Woodstock Country Store sits nicely poised at the junction of Kendall Road and Church Hill Road, quite near the Kedron Valley Inn,a church, a meetinghouse, and several venerable brick homes,one of which bears testament to having once housed the Orion
Grange Hall. When I arrived at the store, a gentleman on a snow-cat had just pulled in to visit the town’s tiny post office that is attached to the building; other than this unusual vehicle, several ordinary cars and trucks filled the store’s parking lot. I took a seat inside the store at an oak table, where comfortable antique chairs seemed to beckon, and spoke with Simran Johnston,who bought the store in August 2017, together with her
sister, Charan Kaur, and their mother, Ann Johnston.
I learned this was not the case of new arrivals buying a rural store and changing it to suit their own metrics…even though Simran’s mom has often worked far afield as a decorator. “I grew up on Morgan Hill Road,” said Simran. “Mom and Dad
have lived here 35 years. I am one of the few people actually born [at home] in the village of South Woodstock, not in the [Dartmouth Hitchcock] hospital in New Hampshire.”
Our conversation was briefly interrupted by local blacksmith and farrier Joel Amya of Green Mountain Horseshoeing, who walked in and presented Simran with two hand-forged railings he had made for the entranceway of the store (other examples of his fine work are also seen within the store). “This is very much like what we consider home,” Simran said as Joel left. “These are our people.” “It’s so much fun to come to a place
where everyone knows you!” chimed in Charan, Simran’s sister, who had just arrived together with her husband, Arjan vander Schoot and their little daughter, who was soon enjoying a splendid, piping-hot grilled cheese sandwich that had just arrived,
straight from the kitchen.
Simran told me the store’s history goes back most likely to
the 1920s, a theory corroborated by former owner Gray Perkins,
who had come in to get his newspaper and joined the
conversation. Gray bought the store in 1973 and said that he
operated it for more than 20 years thereafter. It was originally
built “by a fellow called Ivan Shobe,” he explained. “Seems he
didn’t like Bartell’s store, which was down the street…something
maybe about him having the first (and only) telephone in
town or whatever…and he opened up this one.” Gray pointed
to where the dining area is and told me a single-bay service garage
once stood there in the early days when the store had gas
pumps out front. It was at a time when the post office moved
out and remained, for a few years, with the postmaster: in a
spare room in her house down the street—apparently a homeoffice
arrangement favored by town clerks that was not that uncommon
in rural areas in the old days.
I asked Simran about her experience in retail prior to owning the store. “I ran a gallery in New York for four years,” she answered. But while this may not seem applicable at first blush,
this experience paid off in spades when it came to revitalizing and redecorating the store. Simran’s learning curve took off soon thereafter: “I’d never worked in the food industry,” she
said, “and I never really thought about…the selling part of it.” She soon found a mentor in food service and groceries in employee Allison Beck. “She’s been here forever!” and in Danielle Singleton, the store manager whose last name is almost synonymous with the well-respected retail grocery stores established by Danielle’s grandfather, Bud Singleton, and his family, in Proctorsville and in Quechee, Vermont.
“Store business has been my passion ever since I was a little girl,” affirmed Danielle, who started her career working for the Singleton family business, eventually managing both store locations.“And it got to be too much, working for family…[so] I took time off…and I was at a loss, mowing lawns with my Dad.” Back before the Johnstons bought the general store last
August, “I met the former owner, Allison Brown-Cioffi, and I asked if I could work for her a couple of days a week.” The owner subsequently called her in to take charge of catering for
a local funeral reception. Following that, “I worked for the store for about a week, and I soon said to myself, I’m gonna buy that place . And then, when I asked about it, I heard it was under contract!” Thus, it could be said, Danielle came along with the store, bringing her experience to bear in both the transition and renovation as the Johnstons took over in late 2017. Today, at any time you may visit, it is a good bet you’ll find both Danielle
and Simran working behind the counter.
“We closed on August first and took seven days to clean and paint the place,” recalls Simran. “We were closed, which really affected things, but we were up until 2:00 a.m. working here.” It was a total makeover, thoughtfully done, that resulted in making more floor space available to shop (and socialize) and space for several tables for diners in the deli area, plus a greater variety of items on the shelves, without disenchanting folks who had shopped here for years for their staples. “I was a customer here for my whole life,” said Simran. “We didn’t want to ruin the soul of the store.” Encouragement and inspiration came
from Ann: “My mom does pop in from time to time these days. She was basically the cheerleader for the whole effort; she does interior design for hotels,” Simran added.
Charan contributes to the effort also: “I’m not in very often, [since] I have five kids and I teach, but I do a lot of the decorating and I plan special events,” she stated. “We had a big Halloween party here last fall, and people came from many different towns to attend. Chip Kendall gave wagon rides, we had a pizza truck here, and the Vermont Horse Country Store gave haunted house tours. We hope to do more of these things, like sleigh rides in January, especially when the Green Mountain Horse Association brings in people for their events.”
Apart from events, lunch specials keyed into specific days of the week have proven to be good draws also, such as the store’s now-famous breaded fish sandwich, offered on “Fish Fridays.”Holiday specials planned for the future include Thanksgiving turkeys that will come from local farms. Indeed, the Johnstons, and Danielle, source as many items as they can locally; popular goods include Tina Tuckerman’s goat milk soap from her One Chicken at a Time Farm, Chip Kendall’s maple syrup, Strafford Organic Creamery Milk, and Vermont Farmstead Cheese (the cheese company is located right in town). There are plenty of made-in-Vermont products from other parts of the Green Mountain State found on the shelves, such as Speeder & Earl’s Coffee, which one might expect only to find in the Burlington area.
What does the future hold for the store? Simran told me that she is a ceramic artist and has a studio upstairs over the store, which she will eventually open to the public “once I’m not so
focused down here,” she added. Of all the efforts the new owners have put into the South Woodstock Country Store, Danielle said, “I think they’re really making a place for everyone to come together…what’s the future going to be like? I don’t know, but I think it’s going to be awesome !”
The South Woodstock Country Store blends traditional customer
service and hospitality with 21st-century storekeepers’ know-how.