By Johnna Kaplan
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2017
In 19th-century New England, general stores were community hubs, places to meet neighbors and swap news and gossip while stocking up on necessities from sugar to nails and even mail, as the general store typically doubled as the post office.
General stores might seem like a curious vestige of the past, but many are in fact still viable businesses. These three Connecticut general stores proudly honor their history. At the same time, their owners strive to stay relevant in the modern era, looking forward to a future in which there will always be a place for the general store.
Colebrook Store, Colebrook
Driving through Colebrook, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much has changed here since the town was incorporated in 1779. But behind the pillared façade of the yellow Colebrook Store, built in 1812 and part of the Colebrook Center Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a story of setbacks and comebacks. The store has changed ownership nearly two dozen times in 200 years and been shuttered twice; the building is presently owned by the Colebrook Preservation Society. Under its latest management, it sells groceries, fresh meals, and convenience items and provides catering for events. It also has a reputation as a gathering place, just as it was in the past when it housed the town court, before these were abolished in 1959, and the local post office, until it moved across the street in 1996.
For history lovers, however, the gem of Colebrook Center might be the unassuming structure partially obscured behind the yellow store. This diminutive building, built in 1803 and known as the Woodbine Cottage, was Colebrook’s store before the Colebrook Store. Now one of several outbuildings on the property of the privately owned Samuel Rockwell House, it is history hidden in plain sight, and subtle evidence that change is a constant, even in places that look immune to the passage of time.
The Round Hill Store, Greenwich
The Round Hill Store, in Greenwich’s backcountry, has been in business for so long that it pre-dates the road it stands on. Robin Strain Vanacore, whose family has owned the property for more than a century and who now runs the store with her husband John, says that records go back to the early 1800s and that stories passed down through the years maintain the store was established in 1801. Since the couple took over in 2003, they have worked to create what John calls an “everything store for everybody.” In addition to the deli, customers can find packaged foods, baked goods, candy, coffee, and a variety of household items. Also on display, and sometimes for sale, are collectibles, including the model trains the Vanacores sold full-time before becoming storeowners.
In the past, the Round Hill Store served as feed store, post office, and even garage. Today it remains a humble throwback in a neighborhood of grand mansions. But it’s not all old-timey—there’s a food truck parked out back. It’s called the Round Hill Store Too.
G.M. Thompson and Sons, Mansfield
The pet-and-farm-supply store in the distinctive historic building beside the railroad tracks in Mansfield Depot has been owned by the Thompson family off and on since 1875. Its history as a general store dates at least to 1857, when, according to Beckwith’s Almanac, burglars broke in and stole “goods and sewing silk” and “$8 worth of postage stamps, and opened all the letters.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, G.M. Thompson and Sons sold groceries; today, fourth-generation owners George Thompson III and his cousin Burnie Thompson Jr. sell primarily feed and supplies for livestock and pets. There’s also a deli counter, installed in the 1980s when customers requested it. Then, there were few dining options nearby;
now, Mansfield Depot is a less crowded area to grab lunch than UConn’s bustling Storrs campus nearby.
Today, George Thompson says, his business doesn’t function like a general store of yore. Customers “come in and get stuff and go.” But some of the old post office, there for about 25 years until it moved across the street in 1937, according to the store’s website, is still visible inside, and another Mansfield tradition persists here: public notices, posted on signposts at intersections around town, are also hung in what the town’s website still calls “Thompson’s General Store.”
Johnna Kaplan is a freelance writer and editor living in New London. Read more of her work at johnnakaplan.com.
559 Colebrook Road, Colebrook
The Round Hill Store
369 Round Hill Road, Greenwich
G.M. Thompson & Sons
54 Middle Turnpike, Mansfield Depot
Read more in the Summer 2017 issue!