12.17.21

Recognizing Dan And Whit's General Store

. . . . Senate Floor

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, in Vermont, the general store is the epicenter of a community. It is where people not only buy their groceries and newspapers, but also tools and hardware, mittens and hats, axes and chainsaws, gas for their cars, and too many other things to name. But just as important, general stores are where Vermonters meet their neighbors, and when the weather is good, pass the time and talk about their families, things going on in town, or the state of the world.

Marcelle and I have been to just about every general store in Vermont, and each one has its own history and character. One of them, Dan & Whit's, stands out. Located in Norwich about halfway up the eastern side of the State bordering on the Connecticut River, the store that became Dan & Whit's has been operating since 1891. It was originally called Merrill's Store, and the old Merrill's sign is still affixed to the front. The same neon clock, mounted high on the front of the store's facade, has told the time to the town since the 1950s. Made by the Electric Neon Clock Co. in Cleveland, it was recently restored and made energy efficient.

In 1955, Dan Fraser and Whit Hicks, who had both worked at the store for over 20 years, bought it from Mr. Merrill. Since then, Dan & Whit's has been open for business 365 days a year, including a half day on Christmas and a half day on Thanksgiving. Dan and Whit ran the store as partners, and Dan's wife Eliza, known to all as ``Bunnie'', did the bookkeeping in the raised office near the stationery and greeting cards until Whit retired and sold out in 1972.

Dan, who from what I am told hardly took a day off during all those years, retired in 1993, and turned the management of the store over to his sons George and Jack, and their sister Jane pitched in off and on. George's wife Susan took over Bunnie's job in the office, which hadn't changed in decades, except the typewriter was replaced by a computer. Ownership of the store is currently shared between George and his two sons Dan and Matt. Dan, after a 14-year career as a special education teacher, has taken over the day-to-day management.

Most townspeople have an account, so they can simply sign the register and pay the bill at the end of the month. At no charge for local calls, anyone can use the push-button phone with its long cord by the ice machine, and before cell phones, it was a vital link from the magical abundance of the store to the outside world: ``Do we need anything at Dan & Whit's?''

There is a reason why the sign in the store window says, ``If we don't have it, you don't need it,'' because when you walk in and keep walking, the store never seems to end. Dan & Whit's has got absolutely everything, at least everything a person could reasonably want or need. There is fresh fruit and vegetables, a selection of wines, kitchen utensils, bins of nails and boxes of screws, fishing tackle, ladders and rakes, paint, bags of horse feed, maple syrup and candy, toys, ice cream scooped on the premises in summertime, home-brewed beer, bright orange hunting caps, snow boots, plumbing and electrical supplies, shovels and wheelbarrows, wood stoves, birdseed, the local and national newspapers, a deli, gasoline pumps and an electric vehicle charging station, and lots more. The place is kept warm in the winter by a wood-fired furnace in the basement, requiring cords and cords of wood--delivered, split, and stacked behind the Frasers' homes, and there are solar panels on the roof. Dan & Whit's has long been a favored stop for hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which passes through the center of Norwich.

Over the years, Dan & Whit's has hired local high school students to run the cash registers, and there was a time not that long ago when the employees who stocked the shelves and helped you find what you were looking for were long-timers like Larry Smith, who worked there for over 50 years.

Recently, like so many other businesses in our State and around the country, it has been hard to find help. In fact, Dan & Whit's was facing the real possibility of closing, which would have been devastating for the people of Norwich, as well as countless others who come there to shop, as well as former residents of Norwich who stop at the store just to be sure that it is the same as it always was.

As many have remarked, Dan & Whit's is the heart of Norwich, and losing it would have changed everything. I can't imagine Norwich without Dan & Whit's, and I suspect just about everyone who knows the store feels the same way. Real estate listings for property sales in the town include the distance from Dan & Whit's. Hundreds of notices are along the wall by the entrance: dog lost, secondhand items for sale, yoga lessons, a free concert, snow plowing. It all happens at the general store.

Fortunately, but not surprisingly, when word got out that the store might close, the people of Norwich came to the rescue, and Dan & Whit's has not lost a day of business. I want to add my thanks to Dan and the volunteers who saved the heart of Norwich. They have reminded us of what is best about Vermont and, in doing so, have set an example for people everywhere.

I ask unanimous consent that a piece written on December 7 by Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in

the Record, as follows:

The Heart of a Community: a Small Business

(By Robert Reich)

I've got a special place near my heart for Dan & Whit's

general store in Norwich, Vermont. It was there for me during

my undergraduate years in college in nearby Hanover, New

Hampshire--often on snowy evenings when I couldn't get

supplies elsewhere. Years later, when my parents moved to

Vermont for their retirement, Dan & Whit's was there for

them, too.

Like many places around the country, Vermont has been

struggling with finding enough workers to fill jobs. But

unlike most urban centers, where the obvious answer is to pay

workers more, rural towns can't always count on higher wages

to elicit more job applicants because populations are thin

and often declining. And unlike profitable national retail

chains, mom-and-pop businesses can't just absorb higher labor

costs. And they can't simply pass them on to customers in

higher prices, because small-town customers might not have

the ability to pay.

So when Dan & Whit's owner Dan Fraser recently put up a

``Help Wanted'' sign, the inhabitants of Norwich knew it was

bad news. (I never met the younger Dan but I'm sure I met his

grandfather, who passed the store on to his father, who

passed it on to Dan.) After three generations, Dan would have

to close the place down if he didn't get help. So what was he

to do? I heard the rest of the story on the radio. It turned

out that Dan didn't need to do anything. Word went out. Soon,

Dan's customers began applying for the jobs. Rick Ferrell, a

local doctor, took on a shift at the register. A retired

finance director applied for the deli counter. A nurse, a

teacher, a psychology professor, a therapist, a school

principal--nearly two dozen customers have stepped up to

stock shelves, do the inventory, and clean up the place, so

that Dan & Whit's can remain open. (Virtually all of these

new hires are donating their hourly wages to some of Dan's

favorite charities.)

I've spent a lot of time over the years examining what

happens to communities when important businesses close or

abandon them--often because some bean counters back in

headquarters hundreds or thousands of miles away decide it's

not worth the cost of keeping the businesses going where they

are. Economists often praise capitalism's wondrous

``efficiencies'' at moving assets to their ``highest and best

uses.'' Well, there's

something to that. But what's left out of the equation are

the social costs of these moves. They can be quite high.

When asked why the people of Norwich stepped in to help Dan

& Whit's keep going, employee Dianne Miller said it was

``because Dan & Whit's is the heartbeat of this community.''

Others described it as the ``heart of the town.'' That's the

best quick summary of the social benefits of a place like Dan

& Whit's I've ever heard. Communities do have hearts. When

businesses at those hearts disappear, more is lost than an

economic asset. The community loses a place that allows it to

be a community--a place where people meet up, congregate,

exchange gossip and information, barter, learn about common

problems, sometimes decide to take action.

I remember Dan & Whit's as such a place. I can't imagine

Norwich without it. Luckily, it won't have to be. But this

isn't just a ``feel good'' story about one country town

coming together to save an iconic general store. It seems to

me there's an important lesson here for all of us, wherever

we live.

American capitalism is the harshest form of capitalism in

all of the world's advanced economies. It takes almost no

account of social costs and benefits. Businesses swoop in and

swoop out wherever and however profits can be maximized and

losses minimized.

But communities are different. They aren't nearly as

footloose as financial capital. They're built on social

capital, which often takes years to accumulate and can't be

cashed in.

I think people owe something to businesses that are the

hearts of our communities. Maybe we shouldn't allow big

chains or Walmarts to drain our main streets of the commerce

they need to survive. (Even if Walmart's items are cheaper,

the social costs of losing the small businesses that

undergird our community are often way higher.) Maybe we

should donate some of our own time and labor to account for

the importance of these core businesses. Maybe those of us

who can afford to should buy shares in them, to give them an

added financial cushion. At the very least, we owe them our

patronage--rather than, say, the Waltons or Jeff Bezos.

What do you think?