Canterbury, with a unique community ownership, seeks to break the general-store jinx

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 08-25-2023 3:27 PM

Few things are more important for a small New Hampshire town trying to maintain its character than keeping the general store open. And few things are more difficult.

“The old way, selling cans of soup, cigarettes, gas and lottery tickets – that’s not going to make it. There’s nothing wrong with it but it just doesn’t work nowadays,” said Kevin Bragg, a board member of one of the most unusual systems for saving a local store, the for-profit, community-owned Canterbury Community Market LLC. “Especially here. We’re too close to Concord, too close to Tilton, and close to Exit 17 with all kinds of stuff.”

The Canterbury Country Store, which traces its history back to 1767, is closed and undergoing renovations as it gets re-imagined by its latest owners, who are the 23rd set.

“We knew the traditional model of the country store wasn’t working – we’ve watched people go out of business,” said Jane Balshaw who, with husband Dave, will be operating the store. “It became clear we needed to do things that had bigger margins and do what people were looking for.”

Canterbury is not alone in its concerns. The Monitorruns stories all the time about general stores that were centerpieces of the community in the pre-supermarket era but have trouble finding a modern business model. New owners start out in a blaze of hope but fade financially and leave a few years later; the town rallies and the store gets new owners; then the rally fizzles and the pattern repeats.

Canterbury saw this coming back in 2000 when the then-owner decided to retire and sell the store. The community formed a corporation selling shares at $1,000 each. The Canterbury Community Market LLC (limited liability corporation) may be unique in New Hampshire. A total of 320 people bought shares at first; about 370 currently own them, Bragg said.

The LLC purchased the store building, a former livery stable, as well as the nearby post office building and an adjacent house, which along with town hall and the library make up the town center.

All went well for a while but in 2020 the store’s then-operators, Joe and Tony Halla, said they were going to retire, raising new worries about the store’s existence. A separate group, Friends of the Canterbury Country Store, was formed to do fundraising and community events. “We’re trying to get new people who have moved to town to experience the store,” said Bragg.

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The renovations include a new ceiling, new wiring, a better walk-in cooler, lighting and other improvements. The costs are being covered by the LLC with assistance from a lot of donated labor and expertise.

“Everybody’s pitching in when they hear what’s needed. We had a couple teenage kids helping out, working with folks in their 70s,” Bragg said.

Perhaps the most important recent change, however, is hidden from view. The groups joined in with the town and United Community Church to upgrade the septic system serving the town center. This has allowed the store to get licensed to sell prepared food like sandwiches and salads, which carry higher profit margins than selling groceries.

The leach field also allows for the creation of an ADA-compliant public bathroom, something that had been sorely lacking, Bragg said. This in turn will let the store add an area for people to sit and eat.

“It’s important to have a place to gather,” said Balshaw.

But have no fear that the store’s personality is completely changing, Bragg said. “You’ll still be able to get dog food, chicken feed, everything else.”

The Balshaws, who moved here from Sonoma County, California, after being charmed by Canterbury and surroundings, are both cooks who have run and owned retail and food businesses. This is the fourth time they’ve been involved in a store remodeling, she said.

Their plans include creating their own line of products – “tea blends, quick meals, skin care products, using local ingredients as much as possible,” Balshaw said.

In other words, doing what needs to be done to keep the business thriving.

“We have the experience with retail to turn things if that is needed, if the ship needs to go in different directions,” she said.

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