Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Dan Fraser's workday starts at 3:30 a.m., three hours before Dan & Whit's, his general store in Norwich, Vermont, opens for business. Matt Fraser, Dan's younger brother and business partner, is a slacker by comparison. He generally doesn't make it in until 4 a.m.
Anyone who has ever dreamed of owning a general store in a picturesque New England village should read the above paragraph twice, and pay close attention to what follows. For while Dan and Matt are more than content with their lots in life, even grateful, it's not for everyone.
Matt thinks it's strange when travelers stop in and ask, "How do we get to the center of town?" "Uh," he'll say, "you're here"--on Main Street, two blocks north of the Norwich Post Office and the Norwich Bookstore, two blocks south of the Norwich Fire Department, next door to the Norwich Inn. There used to be five general stores in Norwich, population 3,414. Now only Dan & Whit's remains.
"If we don't have it," says the sign out front, "you don't need it." The Frasers sell groceries, hardware, cleaning supplies, soaps, shampoos, and toothpaste. They also sell coffee, deli sandwiches, beer and wine, maple syrup, and coyote urine, which repels deer, for a while anyway. "The best thing for the deer's a bullet," Matt says. Also ammunition (but not guns) and animal traps: Havaharts or the heartless kind, your choice. "A few customers have asked us not to carry them," Matt says. "Because they think it's cruel. But we try to get stuff for everybody, not just specific people."
Among the items they do have and you don't need is a jar of Dan & Whit's Dust, $2.99. Total sales for the business are holding steady at about $1 million a year.
The simple pleasures of the 90-hour workweek
The original Dan--Dan S. Fraser, now deceased--was Dan and Matt's grandfather. Whit was his high-school buddy. They grew up in Norwich, started working here in the 1930s, and bought the business from the Merrill family in 1955. Dan's sons, George and Jack, took over in the 1970s. George and Jack are still the principal owners. They're here most days. But Dan and Matt are here every day, all day, weekdays and weekends, each clocking about 90 hours a week. (All that, in Dan's case, on one cup of decaf coffee a day.)
Vacations? Problematic. Dan, who's 48 and single, says he once went two years without a day off. He was looking forward to a couple of weeks at the Jersey shore last summer when a key man in the meat department quit. "When you count on someone to do things, and then they decide to move on, you're stuck holding the bag and there are not any other options," Dan says. Matt, who's 43 and married with two young children, claims he's "never thought about" what's the least appealing aspect of the life he has chosen. When pressed, he allows, "Probably not being able to get away. It would be nice to have a regularly scheduled day off."
The brothers might go hours without bumping into each other, and not just because they work all day in a many-burrowed, multi-level, narrow-aisled warren. Bearded, taciturn, flannel-shirted Matt lives in the next town over in a house he built himself, on land he cleared. He kept pigs and cows before kids "kind of took the place of animals," he says. In his opinion, he's not so great with people. Worse with computers. "I think technology peaked with a calculator," Matt says.
That's fine; he's content behind the scenes: overseeing store rooms and bathrooms, carting flowers outside every morning, filling drink coolers, unloading delivery trucks, and--in season--keeping Dan & Whit's three wood-burning furnaces well-fed, which is the part of his job he likes best. Annual fuel consumption: about 20 cords. "I'm cutting the logs up and splitting them and stacking them," Matt says. "It relaxes me. I like to think I'm really good at it and efficient, so it gives me a sense of accomplishment."
Smooth-cheeked Dan, who favors khaki pants, Polo shirts, and clogs, is the public face of Dan & Whit's. He's a former special-ed teacher who started working here full-time in 1990. His base of operations, from which he makes frequent forays to help customers and restock shelves, is the "office"--a low-walled platform, centrally located, stuffed with desks, telephones, filing cabinets, computers, printers, a fax machine, and a microphone. ("Pete and Jerry, line one for an egg order. Pete and Jerry, line one.")
"I get the drawers ready," Dan says, describing his pre-dawn routine. "I make the coffee. I call in the produce order. I do the gas reports. I print the computer reports. I answer emails. I put out the fires, whatever happened last night, prep for whatever I need to do because you never know until 6:30 which staff members are not coming. I have to be ready, whether it be on register or the meat department or whatever."
People you can't count on
There's never enough help. Dan & Whit's employs 16 full time plus "a lot of very part-time people," says Dan. "And some that are here full time for the summer and then they go back to school." For local high school kids who grew up shopping here, a job at Dan & Whit's is almost a rite of passage. They earn $8.15 to start--less than Vermont's $10 minimum wage for adults, but more than the $7.25 federal minimum. Still, kids these days, says Dan, they've got too much going on. Sports, plays, orchestra.... They can't commit. At tax time every year, Dan sends out about 100 W2s.
"Sometimes I just get so fed up with people who promise they'll work anytime, and there's never anybody here on the weekends," Dan says. "It just seems like I'm always hiring somebody. Right now, especially, with the unemployment rate so low, it's very difficult to get people. We always have a hard time in August and September. But this year in particular we see a lot more need than we usually have."
The sales tax in Norwich is another killer: 6 percent across the board, 9 percent on prepared foods. Hanover, just across the river in New Hampshire, has no sales tax. It also has 12A, a big-box strip south of town with a Shaw's supermarket, a Price Chopper Pharmacy, a Walmart, and a Home Depot.
But somehow it all works. Dan & Whit's location in one of the richest towns in Vermont is a blessing. A lot of people with good jobs at Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center believe in supporting local business. Others, with jobs that require they wear reflective vests, may not be able to afford to live here. But they pass through town every day on their way to somewhere else and stop at Dan & Whit's for something to eat. "We sell tons of breakfast sandwiches and cheeseburgers and things like that at lunch," says Dan. (No cigarettes, though. "We used to back in the day," says Dan. "We used to sell tons of them." But the store stopped 10 or 15 years ago. "We were paying more for a pack of cigarettes then our customer could buy them for in New Hampshire.")
No reason to change
Paul Tierney is a retiree who's been shopping at Dan & Whit's all his life. He values convenience firmly over price. "It's three miles from my house," Tierney says, filling a brown paper bag with Sheetrock screws for the upholstery on the hot rod he's building. That's down in 10 minutes and back in 10 minutes, instead of a half hour each way for the next-closest store. "The customer service is great," says Tierney. "I know the people. And they have a great philosophy. I'm here for a $2 purchase, but over the course of the year I do $5,000. So they have that in mind."
Some, with the luxury of choice, venture out into the world. Others stay put. "We're definitely rooted right here," says Dan. "I don't get very far." And the compensating pleasures are...? "That this business continues," he says, "and that people in town value that, and value what our family does and represents."
Just then a customer ducks her head in the office. "Rubber gloves?" she asks. "Second to the last aisle on your left," Dan replies.