By Curt Peterson, Standard Correspondent
BARNARD — If Barnard is a one-horse town, as its only visible business, perhaps the Barnard General Store is their lone equine. Actually, in 2012, when popular previous owners threw in the towel and closed the business, the BGS, as it’s known locally, became more of a sacred cow, recognized by everyone as the social and commercial heart of the village, and they did not want to let that heart stop beating.
Local residents formed an organization around the mantra, “Save the Store,” called it the Barnard Community Trust and went to work to secure community ownership of the building. According to the Friends of BGS website (www. friendsofbgs.com), BCT raised $300,000 in the first year and the building’s owner, Bill Twigg-Smith, took back a $200,000 one-year mortgage enabling the Trust to take title to the property.
Once they were sure ownership was secured, BCT went in search of new operators for the business while volunteers operated a small café in the store using goods donated by Vermont Coffee Company and Harrington’s. Thus local residents maintained their gathering place; the pulse may have been weak, but the heart was still beating.
BCT trustees felt fortunate to find Joe Minerva and Jill Bradley, who had experience helping to operate and grow a store in Richmond and who were looking for an opportunity to own their own business. According to Tom Platner, secretary of BCT, negotiations with the couple were done carefully to balance sustainability of the building while allowing financial room for Minerva and Bradley to make a living and reinvest in the business.
Platner admits he is a “fixture” on the store’s long porch. “Come by any time and you’ll usually find me sitting there talking to somebody.”
In September of 2013, Governor Peter Shumlin cut the grand opening ribbon when the new incarnation of the Barnard General Store took its first official breath. For Vermont’s small towns, many of which rely and depend on their local general store, this was an inspiring moment in history.
“Our goal was to make sure the Barnard General Store was always there for the town, and their goal was to settle in Barnard and make the store their life’s work,” Platner told attendees at the Aug. 18 second annual meeting of the BCT. “So it had a good chance of working out if we did it right. They didn’t get the store for nothing, but they have every chance of being successful.”
Part of the lease requires the store operators to maintain the very popular beach area across the road on Silver Lake.
A man in the audience remarked: “The beach area is pristine – how does that happen when the trash barrels have been taken away?”
Platner answered that people take their trash away with them instead of tossing it in the general direction of the barrels. “The same strategy worked on Route 12 near The Ledges,” he said. “When there was a sign prohibiting dumping and littering the ground around the sign was always covered with trash. We asked them to remove the sign and people stopped leaving trash there.”
During the question-and-answer session a woman pointed out that although people who donated to the Restore the Store campaign don’t have a right to tell the store operators how to run their business, “those donations made it possible for them to get a good deal, and they should at least listen to suggestions.”
“Most of the people who have complained to me about how Joe and Jill are running the store say they want things to go back to the way they were with the previous owners,” he said. “I point out that ‘the way things were’ didn’t work, so to be successful, things will have to be different.”
BCT treasurer Boyd Bishop gave a detailed financial report on the condition and performance of the Trust. Its nonprofit certification by Internal Revenue Service was finally issued, which allowed BCT to have over $85,000 of its money released to it by Vermont Preservation Trust, which had been custodian until certification was official.
“We’ve raised $197,170 this year,” said Bishop, which includes donations and rental income from the store. “Our total expenses were a little over $142,000.”
He went on to say BCT has paid off all mortgages on the property, has caught up on most of the repairs and maintenance items that had been deferred by previous owners, and still has more than $82,000 cash-onhand. Donations are still important, he said, to the long-term success of the project.
As for the store operations, Platner said Joe Minerva had reported they were 7-8 percent ahead of last year. “They haven’t lost any money; they haven’t made a lot of money, but they haven’t lost any either.”
Minerva told him the summers are very good, but the winters have been tough.
“By Memorial Day, they’ve used up their reserves from the previous summer,” Platner said.
Platner provided details of building upgrades and maintenance, including replacing the entire water system, and bringing in professional pest control people to get rid of a squirrel invasion. “They got in and were eating the hot dog rolls”, he said.
Future plans include an overdue paint job, “probably two sides each year,” Platner said.
BCT chairman Rick Carbin announced there are several vacancies on the board of the Trust and invited interested people to volunteer. Ted Williamson and Marty Bell were nominated for board positions and were unanimously confirmed by members at the meeting.
The question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting was energetic. Platner began by asking all present to remember that the operations of the store are totally the purview of Minerva and Bradley.
“We, the BCT, are in charge of the building,” he said. “Everything about the store is separate from BCT and we have no say in how they run the business.”
Asked the status of BCT membership, Carbin replied that current memberships are about 70.
“We had as many as 500 during our fundraising campaign. That was culled to about 400. We just sent out a solicitation mailing and we’ll see where we stand when the returns are in. If the numbers are short, we’ll send out a follow-up,” Carbin said.
Membership is $10; if a person gives a donation of $10 or more, membership is automatic.
The previous owners of the store were very popular and involved in community affairs, one woman pointed out, noting that some people thought that Joe and Jill were a little standoffish. She thinks they “got the message” at the annual Street Dance (Aug. 16), she said, Jill worked her head off, was engaged with everyone and helped make the event a huge success.
Someone asked a question about possible failure of the septic system during the Aug. 16 annual Street Dance, as there had been septic problems in past years. Several people, she said, asked about an odor that developed during the evening. Tom Platner explained that the septic system had just been pumped before the dance, that the leach field is 150 yards away from the dance area, and that the system is working fine.
“The odor,” he said, “was from the grease trap system. We had the grease collection tanks pumped, but I think the service company didn’t change the filter as they’re supposed to.”
Someone agreed that she had experience with grease traps, and they smell worse than septic failure.
“The service company showed me how to change the filter,” Platner said, “but I am not going to do it. It’s too disgusting!”
He said the cost to have the company come and deal with filter changes is miniscule, so the call will be made.
Platner went on to say he doubts the septic system will be a problem in the future, as it is pumped every six months and only serves one lavatory and the kitchen.
“The required size of the system is determined by the number of seats in the dining area. Joe and Jill are using only eighteen seats including the stools, which is the seating for which the system is approved. The previous owners had 28 or 30 seats. When the inspector would tell them to reduce seating to 18 they would remove tables and chairs until he was gone, then put them back again,” Platner said.
The meeting was informative, orderly, well attended and upbeat, which was compatible with the success of this remarkable cooperative community project to save the lifeblood of the village.