Something in Store

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the Shelburne Country Store

by Molly Farrell

Photos: Jeff Clarke

If the Shelburne Country Store weren't right in the middle of Shelburne, the curators of the Shelburne Museum might be tempted to pick it up and move it to the 40-acre Americana museum across the way, because it's the genuine article.

Built in 1859, the store's rolling floors and the occasional step-up or step-down between awkwardly added rooms and annexed buildings convey a sense of the little country store's growth over 150 years.

Betsy Taff

Betsy Taff doesn't use a point-of-sale system to track inventory at the Shelburne Country Store. "We sell so many items," she says, "that it's hard to find a system that could handle all of them."

Like many of its recent owners, Betsy Taff, who purchased the store from Marley Skiff almost 10 years ago, is intent on keeping it that way. "I really feel that a country store should have something for everyone, like in 'Little House on the Prairie,'" Taff says. "I would even have gone back to selling groceries, but Shelburne Supermarket was already doing a fabulous job."

A wooden Indian stands guard over barrels filled with penny candy. Weekday afternoons, schoolchildren vie for space with out-of-staters sampling the store's signature fudge or Vermont-made salsas and spreads, while local shoppers stop in to look for gifts or specialty condiments.

Taff, her husband, Doug, and small son moved from Connecticut to Vermont in 1973 when Doug was offered a job at Garden Way. Taff had been an elementary school teacher in Connecticut, but chose to start a small craft business called Baskets of Prints, selling her calligraphy, drawings and paintings from home.

After the break-up of Garden Way, Doug and a few partners started Sun Place in 1980, manufacturing sunrooms and greenhouses. Betsy joined the firm as a sales representative in 1981 and became national sales manager in '89.

The Taffs left Sun Place in 1990 and looked for a business to run together. Taff had her heart set on a retail store. "I started working at Bloomingdale's when I was 16 and I love retail," she explains. When she decided on the Shelburne Country Store, Doug bought Town and Country Rubbish in Vergennes. "Doug was skeptical that my store would generate enough money to support us both, so he went into the garbage business," says Taff.

Her first few years with the store were rough going. "I didn't know what 'open to buy' means, which is knowing what you'll do in gross sales, what your fixed expenses are and what you have left to spend," says Taff. "It took me two years to figure that out and be able to pay all of my bills on time."

It was five years before the store turned a profit. "It takes time to build up enough business to support the rent, utilities and labor costs," she notes. "It's also difficult to build up inventory to a substantial level," she adds. Now the store carries $200,000 in inventory -- $250,000 at Christmas time. Annual sales have grown to $650,000.

She also had to adjust to the seasonal nature of her business. "We're busy June through December, but it really dies after Christmas. We don't sell much January through June, except to locals who come in and buy penny candy or a lamp shade for their house."

Taff pays $4,000 a month rent for the 4,000-square-foot, two-story building. The first floor has seven sales rooms, a storage area, a shipping department and a kitchen for making fudge. The upstairs, which used to be an apartment, houses offices and an employee kitchen/break room.

Each sales room has a different theme. Kris McEntee runs the candy department in the front room. "Kris is always looking for a new candy that big and little kids will enjoy like -- yuck -- gummy brains and gummy teeth," says Taff. The candy section is a favorite among locals. "Betsy makes decisions not with making money in mind but with what will make people happy," says Peggy Eastman, long-time Taff friend, Shelburne resident and owner of the women's clothing store, SportStyle, in South Burlington. "You can give a child 50 cents and they'll come out with a big bag of candy."

During foliage season, Taff makes 70 pounds of fudge twice a week in 35-pound batches using 2-foot-tall double-boilers. In December, production jumps to 140 to 210 pounds a day, five days a week.

Christmas tree

The store's busiest season is June through December. Betsy Taff and her staff boost their typical $200,000 inventory to $250,000 during the Christmas rush to handle demand. Rebecca Gecewicz (left), Kris McEntee (kneeling) and Jeane Hubbinger.

A creaky step up on either side of the long front counter leads to the housewares section, two small adjoining rooms crammed with traditional and trendy dishware, pottery, pewter, and place mats as well as candles, cards and trinkets.

Other rooms contain clothing, books, potpourri, photo frames, puzzles, soaps, lamp shades, rugs, toys, and stuffed animals.

Much as Taff is committed to carrying on and adding to the traditions that make the Shelburne Country Store unique, she has made many changes and even discontinued one department. For years the store carried an extensive line of lighting and lamp parts, time-consuming items to sell. "I couldn't find a book on repairing lamps that explained the parts," she says. "If you don't know how to use them, you don't know how to sell them and my employees could spend an hour selling a 65-cent part. I decided that I hated that department."

The emphasis is on Vermont products and crafts, and colonial and country styles, like the old-fashioned buttermilk paints made by Stulb in Pennsylvania. "The store has been buying from Stulb since the 1940s," notes Taff.

A year-round Christmas room features hand-made glass ornaments and stuffed Santas. "People like Christmas. They also expect Christmas items to be on sale in January, so I've learned to buy things on sale so I can offer a January sale." During the holiday season, a decorated Christmas tree is in every room in the store.

Doug Taff has one criticism. "He calls it a ladies' store," laughs Taff. "He complains that we don't carry enough men's things, but we have weathervanes, men's wallets, stove polish, and gardening tools and books."

Taff doesn't use a point-of-sale system to keep track of inventory. "We sell so many items that it's hard to find a system that could handle all of them," notes Taff. "We only reorder a few items like candles, cosmetics, candy, jams and jellies, mustards, crackers and cheeses. We keep ordering new items for the rest of the store because customers get tired of the same products, so it doesn't make sense to take the time to input them into the computer."

The store has 12 full-time employees. "Most of the people I hire are my age who are looking to do something part-time," says Taff. "I have an incredible staff, and most have been with me at least five years," she adds.

Taff's 25-year-old daughter, Jen, works in the store between travels to Oregon, Alaska and the Virgin Islands. "She's been here so many years that she automatically knows how to take down a display and put up a new one," says Taff. "I wish Jen wanted to do this for a living but she's leaving soon for Costa Rica to work in the rain forest," adds Taff with a sigh. The Taffs have been helping their son, Matthew, open an outdoor sports shop in Steamboat Springs, Colo. "It's neat to see your child operate a business," Betsy says.

Staff

From left: Ali Gately, Betsy Taff and Susan Mason.

The staff jumps from 12 to 24 for the holiday season. "We make sure that most of the Christmas help has been hired by Oct. 1 so that by November they know what they're doing," says Taff.

"Betsy's a great person to work for," says Mary Candon, advertising manager for the Shelburne News. Her daughter, Beth, a sophomore at Saint Michael's College, has worked at the Shelburne Country Store for two holiday seasons and two summers. "From the minute Beth started, Betsy gave her a lot of responsibilities," says Candon. "Even though Beth had only been there a short while, Betsy invited her to a Christmas party at her house where she gave all of the employees gifts. She appreciates the work the kids do."

This fall, Taff had a difficult time finding additional employees. "Our hours are usually 9 to 6 during foliage season, but we were only open 10 to 5 this year," she says. The store is open seven days a week. "I would have closed on Sundays, but it's the second biggest sales day after Saturday," Taff notes.

Most of the year Taff works a regular five-day week, but when the Christmas rush starts she puts in 12-hour days, six days a week. "The sad thing is that I have no life after mid-November and can't go to any holiday parties," she laughs. December sales, she says, equal four months' business. "It's just amazing. The customers buy everything."

Taff keeps refining her advertising strategy. "I didn't know how to advertise when I first got into the business," she admits. "I had a trunk sale on Vera Bradley handbags along with a Pilgrim glass promotion and someone fixing customers' hair with barrettes and ribbons and it didn't increase business at all." Another promotion featuring Chinese and Italian cooking classes had the same low turnout. "Now I only advertise when I really have something to advertise, like Shelburne's August sidewalk sale, foliage season, and Christmas."

Taff and other Shelburne merchants pool their resources to host an annual Christmas walk the first Friday of December. Activities includes sleigh rides, caroling and the lighting of the tree in front of Shelburne's Pierson Library. Shelburne Country Store employees make dozens of cookies for children to come in and decorate. "It's a little wild with 150 kids in here frosting cookies," notes Taff.

Candy

Betsy Taff makes 70 pounds of fudge twice a week during foliage season. In December, production jumps to upwards of 210 pounds a day five days a week.

Berta Hager and Pat Kingsland have run the store's holiday shipping department for four years. The store stops receiving new merchandise at the end of October and ships packages from the second week of November through Christmas. The two women ship 60 to 70 packages a day for in-store customers, who bring mailing addresses and labels with them when they shop.

The store's shipping department might need to be enlarged to fulfill holiday orders coming from the store's new website (www.shelburnecountrystore.com), launched in late August. "We're hoping that it will increase business without increasing the number of customers in the store because we're at capacity in the store at Christmastime."

In their spare time, the Taffs entertain friends at home and go snowshoeing and motorboating. Vacations are spent at a beach house in Southampton, Long Island, left to Betsy by her parents. "We rent it out during the summer and go there in the spring and fall," she notes.

Taff was able to take up skiing again last year when she stopped working weekends at the store. She does the buying for the store and travels most of the month of January and part of February with her bookkeeper, Susan Mason, to gift shows to select new inventory.

"Betsy really understands the role of her store as a destination for visitors to Vermont, but also understands the value of community," says Bobbi Maynes, former Vermont tourism and marketing commissioner who opened the Heart of the Village Inn in Shelburne in 1997. "The Shelburne Country Store is an integral part of my guests' experience and everybody gets sent over to her store."

Molly Farrell is a free-lance writer living in Burlington who specializes in business, law and environmental issues.