Fall 2013
Old is Gold By Eric Wallace

It isn’t that The Old Country Store in Moultonborough, NH, has been around almost since the dawn of American independence. What’s amazing about this gift shop is that it has consistently been a profitable operation. Find out how.

You can’t miss it. At the intersection of Highway 25 and Route 109 in Moultonborough, NH, lies what is likely America’s oldest gift shop: The Old Country Store and Museum.

The store’s co-owner, Stephen Holden, discusses the gift shop’s long and storied history with the air of a passionately approachable scholar. “The building was first opened in 1781,” he says, quick to point out the significance of the date: “This was the year the American Revolutionaries forced the surrender of General Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia, thus securing the dream of American Independence.” Holden returns to this theme often: the idea of the Old Country Store being a place where history informs the present, transforming the gift shop into a unique shopping adventure.

In fact, that “museum” that’s tacked on to the name? It is housed upstairs and features artifacts as diverse as the building’s original post office boxes, axes and saws used in local lumberjack competitions, an 1847 issue Concord Coach Company stagecoach, and working 19th-century iceboxes.

Past perfect

Stephen Holden, along with his wife, Cecile, and another investor, Jo Hayden, purchased the store way back in 1973, and celebrated their fortieth anniversary in May. Prior to its current incarnation, the Old Country Store served a number of local functions ranging from stagecoach stop, Masonic lodge, town hall, library, and post office. Due to its location along the intersection of major east/west Highway 25 and north/south running Route 109, the store was, from the very beginning, an important center of commerce. “Even in the early stage coach days the building served as a hub for supplies and rations and trading,” Holden says. “The place always had a double function. Even when it was a lodge, or a post office, it remained something of a general store, a place where people could come and get the things they needed to live.” In fact the earliest “sales” were made in 1781, which would make the shop 232 years old!

Fast forward to 2013, where big-box stores abound and Moultonborough’s miles of prime lakefront property draw weekenders and tourists alike. The Old Country Store has reinvented its marketing focusing on the building’s rich, Americana-infused history. From the exterior’s old-fashioned hand-painted wooden signs, rustic yellow siding and shutters, the life-sized, antique, cigar store chieftain greeting you at the door, one gets an acute sense of entering a time warp. Inside, there is the big iron woodstove, rows of old-timey candy, brass cash registers, and exposed wooden rafters hanging with baskets, glass lanterns, and toys. Scarred plank wood flooring, aged barrels and checkerboards complete the look. “We keep all the computers—anything digital—out of sight,” says Holden.

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Longevity outlook

“The key to our longevity and success has been our ability to understand it’s not about trying to compete with the chain stores, or anyone else. It’s about being unique. It’s about carrying products your customers can’t get anywhere else,” Holden says.

One of the store’s biggest sellers is locally harvested maple syrup. Working with a neighbor—a cultivator with three to four thousand taps on his property—Holden insists on personally tasting each forty-gallon batch of syrup. If the batch doesn’t live up to his own standards, he won’t sell it. Another huge seller is cheese. Having learned the art of cheese-making from the New England “old-timers,” Holden counts himself as something of a connoisseur. Aging in the Old Country Store’s cellars there are, at any given moment, upward of two tons of ultra-premium homemade cheese. And, like the locally harvested syrup, Holden scrutinizes his cheeses in much the same manner: if a batch isn’t up to par, he throws it out. “Your products have to be superior,” he says. “Otherwise, people aren’t going to want to buy from you. They’re going to go to the big box store down the road.”

The 75-year-old Holden began his career as a grocery store delivery boy, and comes from a different era of thinking. “In those days—sixty-four years ago, to be precise—there was a milkman, an egg-man, a paper-boy, et-cetera. Everything was produced locally. And because of that, your products were of a higher quality. People would go to work, leave their front doors open, their money out on the counter. You’d come inside with their groceries or whatever it was you had, place the items in their fridge, make change, and be on your way.”

In other words, it was an era of trust. And the cultivation of this sort of relationship—one of trust between proprietor and customer—serves as the Old Country Store’s founding principle. The personal, first-name-basis intimacy of this old retail approach is something Holden emphasizes.

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Formula for success

These strategies have worked. Under current management, for each of its forty years in operation, the Old Country Store has registered yearly profit increases – a feat made all the more remarkable when you consider that the store relies solely on word-of-mouth advertising. Over the years, Moultonborough’s popularity as a tourist hot spot has increased. It is a stopover for weekenders, vacationing tourists, campers, and general passers-by. “Just about anywhere you venture around these parts—whether it’s a gas station, restaurant, hardware store, auto parts outlet, campground, whatever—someone there will ask you if you’ve had the opportunity to check out the Old Country Store. And, nine times out of ten, the tourist ends up paying us a visit,” Holden says. “The customers we started selling to in 1973 are now grandparents. Matter of fact, we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing as many as five generations of customers in here at the same moment. And that’s a rather magical sight to behold.”

Indeed. Combining its highly personalized, experience-oriented sales tactics with a strong marketing push, it is no wonder The Old Country Store has thrived for so long. Its customers will tell you: the store is a destination that’s worth the expedition.

Eric Wallace

Eric Wallace is a freelance writer, journalist and novelist, who lives on North Carolina's Outer Banks with his beautiful wife, and four year-old son. He can be reached at jwallace1234@hotmail.com.




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