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PUTNEY, Vt. – The Putney General Store, established in the 1790s, is having a devil of a time staying open in its fourth century. Just don't call it cursed.
Efforts to keep it thriving have been challenged over the past nine years by two fires, one of which was arson; a lapsed lease after the proprietor became ill; and, most recently, the unexpected cancer death of a pharmacist who had run the store for just over three years.
The store is again closed, and the owner of the building, the Putney Historical Society, which is paying a mortgage and can't afford to keep the doors closed, is planning the store's next incarnation, hoping someone will be able to take it over and run it for decades.
"Some people say, `It's cursed, you see it's cursed,"' said Lyssa Papazian, an architectural historian and member of the Putney Historical Society who has worked on the store since shortly after the first fire in 2008. "OK, we are not going there. It is not cursed but, well, it goes to show you how difficult the business is of running a store in Vermont."
After that first fire, Papazian and the other society members sought help from the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which helps communities save and use historic buildings. It has a special interest in general stores and similar locally owned and operated businesses across the state, said Executive Director Paul Bruhn.
"That's what community is about," Bruhn said. "When you have places like this that people frequent it makes it possible for communities to solve tough problems and face tough issues."
Papazian, who is now on the board of Preservation Trust's Board of Directors, said the historical society is determined to reopen and manage the store as soon as possible, hopefully by early next month, while the search goes on for someone willing to dedicate years to the effort.
"For whatever reason, it's like this romantic ideal, `I'll go open a general store,' when in fact it's a lot of work," she said. "People want to retire and own a general store. That is not a retirement."
A store has been at the intersection of what is now known as U.S. Route 5 and Kimball Hill Road in Putney, current population about 2,700, since the late 18th century. Over the generations it had a succession of owners, some long-term, some short, until the 2008 fire, which started in the wiring in the attic.
At that time, the owner opted not to rebuild, and the Historical Society, recognizing the importance of the store to the life of the community, bought the structure and funded repairs with a combination of grants and donations. About 18 months later, as repairs were nearing completion, another fire, clearly arson, struck the building, burning it into the cellar hole. No one was ever charged with the fire.
This time the historic preservation grants used to repair the building weren't available, because the building would be new, but it was insured. That money, coupled with more fundraising, helped the Historical Society rebuild the post-and-beam structure with local lumber and other donations of money and kind.
The new structure also has the advantage of modern weatherization and heating and cooling equipment. A sprinkler system is, not coincidentally, prominently displayed.
It reopened in late 2011, but the lease holder only lasted 15 months before ill health prompted him to leave. In 2013, Jim Heal, a local pharmacist, and his wife, Jane, took over, reopening the store, selling basic groceries and even featuring a small restaurant. Several months later, they opened a pharmacy on the second floor, the only one in the community.
Jim Heal was diagnosed with cancer last August. The treatment was thought to be going well until mid-December, said his wife Jane Heal. He died Dec. 30 at age 62.
Jane Heal closed the store the next day.
"We were doing very well, but we were only there for 3 1/2 years. Someone needs to have at least 10 years to put into it," said Jane Heal, who said she hoped the business could be reopened soon.
"It has quite a jaded history in a way, if you look at it that way, but that's also the charm of it," she said. "It's kind of like a curse, almost, just another New England curse."