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    Vermont Retailers Form Country Stores Association

    With 52 members, VAICS looks to create buying power, negotiate favorable prices with vendors.

    DORSET, Vt. -- Like scores of others who have come to Vermont seeking the good life, Peltier's Market co-owner Jay Hathaway said that when he and his wife Terri moved from Connecticut 27 years ago, they were "romanced by Vermont."

    Looking for a less complex, friendlier culture, Hathaway said they came with no money, just a dream. Their dream realized in the form of Peltier's Market, Hathaway is now working to help ensure that others have the opportunity to realize similar dreams.
    Now he and six other country storeowners have formed the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores (VAICS) to help ensure that the country store tradition continues, while also assisting country stores in peril.

    The idea, Hathaway said, originated three years ago when he asked himself, "How do we sustain what we have?" Hathaway told the Manchester Journal. "By banding together we can help independent country stores survive. Small businesses are the core of Vermont communities; they're the beating hearts of villages. Vermont is a village culture; if we gather together we have more of a say and more strength with our vendors."

    Currently 52 stores strong, he said country stores are about independence and "one way to remain independent is to form alliances."

    According to Hathaway, "The primary characteristic is the importance of providing products -- bread, eggs, milk, butter and sometimes gasoline -- and services to a village or town. A country market also provides information and a safe place to call if there's a problem or emergency. Kids can safely wait for the school bus here, that kind of thing," he said. "Country stores are institutions of community and village life that oftentimes are ceasing to exist. We must patronize them if they are to survive."

    To become a member of VAICS, a business must be locally owned and operated, be a neighborhood store, have a historical link dating from 1927 or earlier, provide food and other necessities of daily life and be an appealing place to visit. Because of the historical link, Hathaway said the membership won't grow beyond roughly 120 stores, but the primary goal of VAICS is to help stabilize stores in jeopardy and ensure that independent country stores continue.

    To help small member stores that are at risk of closing, Hathaway said he works with owners and banks in New Hampshire and Vermont and helps put together consortiums of people to "save" stores. Because of Vermont's sizable tourist industry, many food items sold at independent markets are Vermont specialty foods such as maple products, Vermont-made cheeses, condiments and confections.

    Hathaway said VAICS is working to negotiate more favorable pricing from vendors and suppliers than member owners can get as individual stores. Such a power-buying program would help independent stores compete with convenience stores that have opened in many Vermont towns. Hathaway spoke about the four key elements of an independent country business: philanthropy, the entrepreneurial spirit, volunteerism and residents of small towns supporting the local economy.

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