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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

'A place to meet and greet and have something to eat'

EATON, N.H. - Here's the latest news from Eaton. Taxes are up a bit. Greg and Christine Columbie are building a new house over on Benlor Drive, and Laurence Smith is replacing his foundation. Joyce Blue has been organizing the cemetery plots. The town has a new dump truck (it's a Ford) and a new snowplow, but no need to worry about the prudence of buying that snowplow. The deal is that if there isn't any snow, the plow can be returned and the taxpayers will get their money back.

There's one thing more, besides, of course, the fact that timber cuts on town lands have been decreasing and the news that Heather McKendry filed the lowest bid for the bush- whacking on Foss Mountain. The store is coming back.

That's very big news indeed. Every town needs a store, or at least every town like this one, for without a store where would you pop in for a cup of New England Coffee or for a slice of lemon soda bread or see a poster for Friday's contra dance or find out how much it costs to mail an oversized post card to Canada? Eaton's a quiet place, perched on the shore of a perfect New Hampshire lake. There are 316 registered voters here, and the only thing that passes for traffic congestion is when a few cars nose up to the little store by the side of the road, which for a while hasn't been much of a store at all.

"People didn't like that," says Judy Fowler. She works in the post office with her sister, the post-mistress (and the town's columnist in the local paper). Her daughter-in-law is the president of the Eaton Village Preservation Society. Lots of interlocking directorates around here, as you can see.

Last August the Eaton Village Preservation Society decided that an empty store left an empty place in the heart of Eaton, and so the group went ahead and bought the place, enlisted nearly four dozen volunteers to replace the windows, repair the cooler, install insulation, refinish the cabinets, and get the old lunch counter back where it belonged, right there in the center of the store. They also raised money (the count is up to about $280,000) for a new dishwasher, a new stove, and other improvements.

"We did not want to lose this store," says Nancy Williams, the postmistress. "This is a little town. We have 360 people here. The community part of a store is very important here. People like to come in and visit with their friends. It couldn't happen if the store closed. Because if the store closed, the post office would close, too."

All that came very close to happening. The last owners struggled to survive and the folks in town noticed first that the lunch counter disappeared and then that there was less and less merchandise on the shelves. "There was a lot of grumble around town about how the heart of Eaton was dying," says Jennifer Kovach, the president of the preservation society. "We couldn't let this happen. We needed a plan."

The plan emerged from an emergency meeting in May, when the people rose up with a revolutionary idea. They bought the store for $225,000, sold $26,000 in founding memberships in the preservation society in one night, and set out on a course that would include yard sales and applications to charitable foundations.

"It was an amazing thing for a little tiny place like us," says Ms. Kovach. "But this is our place to meet and greet and have something to eat." It helps, of course, that the muffins are really good.

There's something very American about this, a combination of community spirit and gritty rural independence, a marriage of the idealism that comes with this sort of adventure and the pragmatism that comes with the worry about where else would you pick up a copy of the Portland Press Herald to read about the Red Sox. Country stores, after all, hold the values of the country, one of which is thrift. They also stock hunters' caps, work boots, and homemade baked goods. The country wouldn't be the country without any one of them.

That's why it turns out that Eaton isn't the only place in old New Hampshire where townspeople have come together to preserve their store and, while they are at it, to preserve the part of their town that, more than the incorporation papers, makes it a town. It's happened, too, in Sandwich, N.H., and in Canterbury.

Over in Canterbury, a little town a dozen miles north of Concord with a white church, a white town hall, and a gazebo on the town green, no one stepped forward when the storekeeper grew weary and then actually closed the Canterbury Country Store.

"The town was as dead as a doornail and everyone was miserable," says Lisa Carlton, who helped organize a preservation effort there. So a crowd gathered on a night of sleet and rain in the Parish Hall and agreed to buy the building, operate it as a limited-liability corporation, and lease it to a storekeeper. It makes money today. That's an American thing, too.

Here in Eaton, Jan Smith and Winnie Weir - they own three "Curves" fitness businesses in the state - have been hired to run the store. No Pilates here, but plenty of people exercised about town politics. The new owners will sell breakfast and lunch and, once they get comfortable, maybe (for this is the prerogative of the store owner, just as it is of the barber and barkeep) dispense wisdom from behind the counter, too. We'll be there soon. You come, too.



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