Old-Time Store

... with a 21st-century heart

For 10 years, Carolyn and Rolf Sennhenn have operated the Old Brick Store in Charlotte, a landmark and community gathering place for more than 150 years.

by Rosalyn Graham

The Vermont country store has many faces. Its classic face is old-fashioned and timeless, with hardware and horse harness displayed near the canned corn, and graybeards gathered around the potbellied stove swapping stories about the number of points on the buck that got away. Its 21st-century face is just as much a reflection of the community it serves fine wine and brie and smoked salmon displayed next to the Raisin Bran, and the locals sitting on the porch unraveling the latest political mare's nest.

The Old Brick Store at the intersection of Ferry and Greenbush roads in Charlotte has been a landmark and a community gathering place for over a century and a half, and its latest owners are continuing that tradition with benches on the front porch for sitting, a deli that caters to the traditional locals and the hippest tourist, and shelves full of the things people count on finding at their local store. In 10 years, Rolf and Carolyn Sennhenn have become as much a part of the fabric of their town as the Williamses, who owned the store for most of the 20th century and the five other owners who were the storekeepers since the 1840s.

Becoming storekeepers was a matter of luck and timing for the Sennhenns rather than long tradition although Carolyn's mother did suggest that it might be in her genes since her grandfather had a grocery store for most of his life in Tasmania. "We just fell into the business," Carolyn says.

In March 1993, the Sennhenns were having dinner with their friends Nigel and Claudia Mucklow, and the conversation turned to the interesting news that the Williamses' Old Brick Store, just eight doors down the road, was on the market. "Both our husbands had jobs, but Claudia and I were looking for something to do now that our kids were in school," Carolyn recalls. "We looked into it and decided to take the plunge and buy the business. It all happened very quickly. The dinner was in March, and we bought the store in June."

The two couples brought an interesting mix of talents to their new endeavor. Carolyn's background was social work, but since arriving in the United States in 1982, from Australia by way of England, she had been raising their two little boys and had worked part-time at Shelburne Museum and in a jewelry store. Rolf's experience was even further from shopkeeping: His work in ophthalmic photography, including the esoteric field of retinal angiography, had taken him from his native Germany to London, where he worked (and met Carolyn), and had brought them to the United States to work at University Health Care.

Initially Carolyn and Claudia took the lead in the country store business, Claudia following her interest in cooking to develop the deli side of the business, and Carolyn taking over the running of the general store. Nigel continued to be busy with his company, New England Floor Covering Co., although he did give advice on the business and financial side, and Rolf was the "hands-on person" who did maintenance and renovations, helping out after work and on weekends.

In 1996, Rolf was ready for a change. He put away his cameras and microscopes and put on a chef's apron. In a transaction that left the two couples "the best of friends still," according to Carolyn, the Sennhenns bought out the Mucklows, and Rolf, who says he has always had a love of cooking, took over the deli. Although he admits he did take a course at New England Culinary Institute, the secret of his success has been experimenting with recipes for everything from salads and sandwiches to baked goods at home.

Ryan Lawlis (left), associate manager, and the Sennhenn's son Götz have learned retail skills from what Rolf calls "Rolf's Finishing School."

His talent for "fixing things up" has been put to good use in the renovation of a 150-year-old building that everyone admits was quite run down. "It needed revamping, but we could see the potential," Carolyn says. "We traveled around and saw other country stores in Vermont to get ideas, and we were determined to bring it back to life as a true Vermont country store.

"We tried to be careful to keep the character of the store, and we think we achieved that," Carolyn says. A key change was to extend the porch, providing benches and chairs and tables for people to stop and sit and chat and watch the passing scene. "It brought the porch to life, and made it more of a community gathering place."

Then there are the summer residents of Thompson's Point and Cedar Beach who depend on the Old Brick Store for everything from picnic supplies to their New York Times. Sundays, the store opens at 8 a.m. instead of 7 to give the staff time to organize the huge stock of New York Times newspapers for the subscribers: 50 or 60 in the winter and more than a hundred in the summer.

The Sennhenns have retained the atmosphere of an old country store, exposing the old beams and brick walls inside, giving the old Williams Brick Store sign a place of honor behind the counter, choosing display units with a sturdy, old-fashioned, wooden look, and preserving the somewhat uneven and sloping floors. The modern deli department is comfortably integrated into the whole, and the extensive wine selection is in a rack designed by Rolf to fit the ambience.

Friendly service and a welcoming atmosphere are priorities for the Sennhenns and their employees, two full-time and one part-time, plus half a dozen students after school and on weekends with more in the summer, their busiest season. Their sons, Götz, 19, a student at Castleton State College, and Garrett, 17, a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School, have worked in the store, experiencing careful coaching in the ways of customer service that Rolf calls "Rolf's finishing school."

Local residents and tourists alike enjoy the old tools that decorate the walls and hang from the ceiling; the counter was built to exhibit historic photographs, old receipts Rolf found during the massive clean-up project of the early years, and postcards. One of those postcards is a 1966 picture of Peter Coleman's then-new Chevy Impala convertible parked in front of the store a picture that Coleman, who is now a well-known photographer, took when he was working for Bill Williams after school, unloading groceries, filling shelves and carrying out boxes and bags for customers. He remembers when most people in town did almost all of their grocery shopping at the store. There was a meat cutter, a fruit and vegetable section with its own manager, and a kerosene pump out front.

The Old Brick Store's modern deli department is comfortably integrated into the store and serves healthy, well prepared foods. Marie Driscoll is the deli manager.

"The Old Brick Store today doesn't have the wide range of groceries that they had then," he says, "but they've done a wonderful job of meeting the needs of the community. They have a great attitude, they stock the things people want and ask for, and in its own way it is as popular as the old brick store was."

"This is what people expect when they come to Vermont," Carolyn says. "We have to make sure it really exists." For their Charlotte neighbors, Carolyn and Rolf are committed to providing one of the essentials of a townscape: a store that meets its practical needs with its sandwiches, bread, toilet paper and mousetraps, and its social needs as stories and concerns of the day are shared and debated. As Katherine Arthaud wrote when she nominated the Sennhenns for the Preservation Trust of Vermont Shopkeeper of the Year award: "Charlotte is such an interesting town, with such an interesting group of inhabitants. If not for this store, I would know so many less of them and so much less about the ones I have happened to meet.

Originally published in February 2004 Business People-Vermont