In Greensboro: After 114 years, Willey’s Store remains famously eclectic

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Robert Willey-Hurst, current president of Willey's Store, Inc., has worked tirelessly these past six years to see that the store remains a community center.  Photos by David Dudley
Robert Willey-Hurst, current president of Willey’s Store, Inc., has worked tirelessly these past six years to see that the store remains a community center. Photos by David Dudley

copyright the Chronicle December 3, 2014

by David Dudley

GREENSBORO — While stories about Black Friday’s frenzied shopping flooded the Internet, the day after Thanksgiving began like any other at Willey’s Store, which is now in its one hundred and fourteenth year of operation.

Robert Willey-Hurst, president of the Willey’s Store, Inc., opened the store at 7 a.m. as usual. The only thing he did differently was stretch the annual winter sale, which usually runs for a single weekend, into a two-week event this year.

“My grandfather Ernie Hurst began grooming me to take over the business at a young age,” Mr. Willey-Hurst said. “Since counting buttons with my grandmother Phyllis Willey-Hurst, I’ve worked here. I went away to Castleton for school. But I always knew I’d find my way back eventually. I’ve made some big changes along the way, but much of what they taught me still sticks.”

Art Ling of Hardwick makes keys for customers on Friday morning.
Art Ling of Hardwick makes keys for customers on Friday morning.

Mr. Willey-Hurst’s knack for running the store was developed and passed down through five generations. His great-great-grandfather Burt Willey bought the store in 1900.

“It was still very much geared towards the farmers in the area,” Mr. Willey-Hurst said. “They were the ones who would come in for all different kinds of supplies; they were the ones who kept the store alive.”

That’s how it built its reputation as a general store. The farmers who visited Willey’s Store needed everything from feed to copper wiring, pipes to cornmeal, paint thinner to cookery.

In the 1920s, Mr. Willey-Hurst’s great-grandfather Robert Willey took over the store.

“He was something else,” Mr. Willey-Hurst said. “He served as town clerk, postmaster general, and fire chief. If you needed him, you always knew where to find him. Later he went on to serve as state senator.

Willey’s Store has always acted as a community center in Greensboro. It’s been run by the same family for generations, and many of the families that shop there have been coming for generations. Some of the current employees have fond memories of visiting the store when they were children.

Art Ling, for instance, grew up in Greensboro.

“I used to come into the store with my family,” he said. “I remember Ernie Hurst well. He was friendly. Always smiling, always whistling.”

Mr. Ling works in the hardware section, where he’s worked for nearly six years.

“My sister worked here,” he said. “When I was a dairy farmer, I used to come in and buy things. So by the time I applied for a job, I knew my way around pretty well.”

A good thing, too, because few stores in the area are as labyrinthine as Willey’s Store. Even regulars need help finding things. In the hardware section alone, there are hundreds of items to choose from. One can buy a bucket, a handful of nails, an inflatable turkey decoy, and a hunting rifle all in one visit.

On Black Friday, Mr. Ling did what he always does. That is, he smiled at the customers that steadily filled the store from 10 a.m. on. He made conversation. He cut four keys for one customer, who suggested that the day ought to be called Gray Friday, after the weather.

As noon approached, customers arrived in throngs. But the influx wasn’t part of some elaborate marketing scheme. That’s just how it is at the Willey’s Store.

Bethany Warner sells Luisa Soboleski a pair of socks on Black Friday.
Bethany Warner sells Luisa Soboleski a pair of socks on Black Friday.

Pat Harvey and Phil Ryder from Wolcott said they’ve made the trip every month or so for the past 20 years.

“It’s a nice place to visit,” Ms. Harvey said. “We come here to spend the morning. We find things we don’t need and buy them. Their dried beef for gravy is the best.”

Luisa Soboleski, who drove all the way from Connecticut, bought a pair of socks.

“I love to come here,” Ms. Soboleski said. “It’s my favorite place in Vermont.”

On this day, the Willey’s Store had free wine-tasting beginning at noon. And Kingdom Creamery, represented by Leslie Michaud, was on hand to share a new flavor of ice cream, Maple on Snow.

“Willey’s has been one of our biggest supporters from the start,” Ms. Michaud said. “And they get a nice mixture of out-of-town folks as well as locals.”

Front-of-store manager Jane Anderson, from Morrisville, has worked at Willey’s Store for a little over three years.

“The store is like a community,” she said. “It’s so unique — the history. I love it.”

“I really believe in stores like this,” deli manager Pat Persico said. “The family tradition. Building relationships with local producers and vendors. It’s community minded.”

Robert Willey-Hurst said that it has been that way all along.

“The store has always been a meeting place for buyers and sellers,” he said. “A customer will come and ask for something. If we don’t have it, I’ll seek it out, and see if we can’t get it on our shelves.

“I go to trade shows, I listen to word of mouth. Since taking my current position, I’ve increased local goods by 50 percent.”

That approach has brought an extraordinarily eclectic gathering of items and objects together under one roof. It’s also responsible for increased profits.

At first glance, it may appear that these boys are raiding the ice cream freezer.  But they are Morgan and Lincoln Michaud, and their mother, Leslie Michaud, is the co-owner of Kingdom Creamery.  The boys were fetching a certain flavor requested by a customer.
At first glance, it may appear that these boys are raiding the ice cream freezer. But they are Morgan and Lincoln Michaud, and their mother, Leslie Michaud, is the co-owner of Kingdom Creamery. The boys were fetching a certain flavor requested by a customer.

“When I took the reins of the company six years ago, the company wasn’t in such great shape,” Mr. Willey-Hurst said. “But today we serve Greensboro, Craftsbury, East Hardwick, Albany, Stannard, Wolcott, and, recently, people from Cabot are even making the trip.

“I would say that it’s the variety of inventory and the sense of community that makes it possible to draw customers from all over. That’s the way it was in the beginning, in 1900, when my great-great-grandfather first opened the store. And today it’s still the same.”

contact David Dudley at [email protected]

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