Robie’s Country Store, a much-loved historical site in Hooksett, has been closed since its operators announced their resignation in September. But soon enough patrons will be welcomed back to sit around a cracker barrel and sip coffee over a game of checkers. New Hampshire State Rep. Thomas Walsh IV has been selected by Robie’s Country Store Historic Preservation Corporation to continue the operation of Robie’s.
“It’s closed right now, but it will be open in the very near future,” said Robert Schroeder, a board member of Robie’s Country Store Historic Preservation Corporation.
Schroeder remembers the day President Jimmy Carter and his entourage strolled into Robie’s Country Store in 1975. At the time, the historic site was run by Lloyd Robie, and Pres. Carter asked for Robie by name.
“He said, ‘Hi, Mr. Robie, I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for the president of the United States,’ and [Robie] said, ‘Jimmy who?’” Schroeder said.
The simple moment of strained communication turned out to be a landmark event for the future president, as the media quickly latched on to the line, “Jimmy who?” It followed Carter throughout his campaign. Carter was one of many political heavy-hitters to visit Robie’s Country Store during its 125-year history. Since 1887, the store has been a cultural centerpiece of Hooksett, serving as a meeting place, a museum, and a fully functioning store.
New Hampshire has been experiencing an expanding village store preservation movement, said Jennifer Goodman, executive director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance. She cited recent efforts by community leaders in Canterbury, Harrisville and Cornish to preserve their own versions of Robie’s. On the state level, last June House and Senate leaders agreed to fully fund the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, providing an estimated $4.1 million for the the 2014 fiscal year and almost $4.3 million for 2015.
“Community landmarks like village stores are important for their history, sometimes their architecture, as well as their role in the community,” Goodman said. “And many of these stores are a real gathering places for community members. It’s not just a place to get a loaf of bread and a cup of coffee.”
Living historical sites like Robie’s Country Store experience the same challenges as other small businesses competing on a shifting business landscape, Goodman said. They require strong store management, tenacity and good business planning to be successful. Since Robie’s Country Store was purchased from the Robie family in 1997 by the RCSHPC, securing a long-term manager has been an ongoing challenge. The new management will be the store’s fourth since RCSHPC bought the site. One manager ran into serious health problems and had to step down; others cited the difficult long hours that come with running the store.
Walsh will bring his extensive food service experience and carpentry talents to Robie’s, which is listed on the National and State Register of Historic Places. The re-opening is slated for mid-February, but before that, Walsh will be lining up suppliers and hiring his new staff, said RCSHPC board member Don Riley. The board received three business plans from interested parties and, after sitting down with each candidate, “It was pretty clear Tom was best suited in terms of where our focus is,” Riley said.
Past managers of Robie’s have worn multiple hats, running the store that sells food staples as well as historic memorabilia and managing a deli where people could buy breakfast and lunch. The store also has functioned as a museum and educational site, and it hosted numerous events including Hooksett Lions Club and Garden Club meetings.
“The town populace feels very strongly about the significance,” Schroeder said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time you run into someone you know there. It’s on the list of things they definitely want.”
When the Preservation Corporation bought it, its members established the mission statement, “To preserve the culture and historical heritage of Robie’s Country Store by maintaining the historical structure and controlling its use to create a living, historical, educational, and cultural museum.”
It takes a whole town to keep a mission statement like that alive. When RCSHPC was formed it didn’t have any money, Schroeder said. Funding came from community businesses and individuals, and open houses were run every month for more than two years. RCSHPC applied to various funds and support groups and local businesses volunteered to contribute free labor. Among the notable contributors was Al Terry Plumbing and Heating, which equipped the store with a new bathroom for free.
“You can imagine, that building is over 100 years old so there’s always something that needs fixing,” Schroeder said. “A large percentage has been done on a pro-bono basis.”
As seen in the January 9th, 2014 issue of The Hippo