Small businesses fill unique niche, serving residents and attracting visitors

Reids Grove, Simmons, Woolford, Hoopers Island, and Lewis share a unique bond. From Rhodesdale, Cambridge and Taylors Island to Hoopers Island and Hudson, they are five of Dorchester’s remaining general stores. A sixth – Bucktown – no longer sells sundries, but is instead a destination and information center for visitors exploring Blackwater, the Harriet Tubman National Byway or any of the many waterways in the county.

Dorchester’s general stores are all part of a once thriving quilt of small businesses across America. While some of this genre have continuously operated for hundreds of years (the oldest recorded one is believed to be Gray’s General Store which opened in Rhode Island in 1788), their dwindling numbers can be attributed to many factors including increased suburbanization and the rise of inexpensive ‘big box’ stores.

Fortunately, these landmark stores continue to serve the County’s rural communities. Many have evolved as destinations beyond the resident population, selling hunting and fishing supplies at Taylors Island to hunters or serving an outstanding meal to visitors at Lewis’s University Restaurant.

Most of the county’s five remaining stores are family owned and operated, employing anywhere from a few family members at Reids Grove up to a few dozen people during the high seasons at larger stores like Woolford and Simmons.

One of the smallest such landmarks is Reids Grove Country Store, recently recognized by comptroller Peter Franchot for being a “great grocery store and gathering place.” Re-opened in March 2009 by Tom and Donna Bradshaw, the tiny shop a few miles north of Vienna, was owned and operated by Donna’s grandmother, Anna Ruth Foxwell for four decades.

Bradshaw credits Joy Loeffler, a former Dorchester First program coordinator, as “instrumental in helping us navigate the cumbersome zoning regulations and red-tape to be able to live and work here.” In the 22 years the store sat vacant, zoning restrictions almost proved their undoing until Loeffler — a one-time planning board member — found a way to move forward. Bradshaw’s entry into elected office was the result of his experience trying to open a small business and his resolve to make it easier for businesses to operate in Dorchester County.

Reids Grove’s merchandise includes a little bit of anything a community resident, farmer, field worker, or transient trucker might want. From baby aspirin and orange juice to detergent and delicious home baked desserts, the small store serves as a popular spot for grabbing breakfast or a sandwich to go. Donna’s ever-present applesauce cake is a perennial favorite as customers stop by every day for a slice, half or whole.

Another Dorchester couple celebrating four years as general store operators this month are Youngman and Jennifer Collins. Jennifer, a county native, pastry chef, and culinary school graduate, purchased the Lewis General Store in 2009 with her husband, Youngman, a California native and fellow professional chef.

Together, the two have continued the general store tradition — while adding their unique stamp in the form of a gourmet restaurant. Located on Hudson Road, 11 miles west of Cambridge, the 138 year-old white clapboard building stocks groceries, sundries and wine. A half-dozen tables and cast iron stove invite customers to linger over coffee or lunch.

Youngman and Jennifer showcase their culinary chops five nights a week when their University Restaurant serves Neck District residents and out-of-town visitors alike in its 28-seat room off the back of the store.

To celebrate the Collins’ four-year anniversary, the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce will hold their monthly Business After Hours reception at the Lewis General Store, 1042 Hudson Road on Monday October 7, 5:30-7:00 pm. For information and to RSVP, email robin@dorchesterchamber.org or call 410-228-3575.