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Putney General Store has new proprietor

After 10 years of trying, Ming Chou finally gets the store he has dreamed of running

PUTNEY—Ming Chou has dreamed of running the Putney General Store for 10 years.

This spring, his dream came true when he signed a 20-year lease with the Putney Historical Society, making him the store’s new proprietor.

Chou is from Sterling, a small town in north-central Massachusetts. He fell in love with the General Store during a family visit to Vermont. He decided in an instant he wanted to own and manage it.

His daughter, who was three at the time, wandered through the old building during their first visit.

“She told me, ‘Dad, I love this store,’” said Chou.

Chou said he tried to buy the “G Store,” as it’s known in Putney, twice during the 10 years before he signed the lease with the historical society.

“It [the first deal] just didn’t work out,” he said.

The accidental May 2, 2008 fire that damaged the store’s top floor and roof put the kibosh on Chou’s nearly-successful second bid.

The same year, the historical society purchased the store from its owners, Erhan Oge and Tugce Okamus. It leveraged its nonprofit status to obtain state and federal grants not open to a private owner.

With a combination of grants, donations, and volunteered elbow grease, the historical society set to rebuilding the store.

Vermont loggers working in the apple orchards near Chou’s Appletown Market in Sterling, Mass., told him about the second fire that burned the 200 year-old store flat in the early hours of Nov. 1, 2009. Vermont fire inspectors later ruled that fire arson.

“No way!” said Chou.

When Lonnie and Obe Lisai of Chester decided against stepping in as proprietors last year, Chou jumped to fill the role.

“I had to take it,” said Chou. “It seemed like fate.”

Chou, 40, wears his excitement for the grocery and restaurant businesses on his sleeve. The more he talks about the G Store, the faster he speaks, gesturing with his hands.

But, in general, Chou rarely sits still.

He has worked in the grocery business for 15 years. He said he started in the restaurant industry at 13.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll retire this way,” Chou said.

In preparation for stocking the General Store’s shelves, Chou noted that he has visited 30 other general stores to see what products Vermonters expect.

He thinks running a general store in Vermont differs from doing so in central Massachusetts.

Although his business in Sterling turns a good nickel, “big box grocery stores” like Hannaford and Price Chopper surround him, making for tough competition.

But Vermonters still use their general stores, he added.

Chou traveled to Middlebury, Georgia, Brandon, and Newport looking for a general store to buy. But none looked like Putney, he said.

Most of the stores he saw included gas stations and were “not a true general store,” he said.

“I was thrilled,” he said about learning the store was for sale.

Chou, a trained and certified Angus beef butcher, envisions a full-scale General Store for Putney. He will load the shelves and coolers with produce, dairy products, household goods, hardware, 800 types of wines, and an estimated 1,400 specialty food items, such as gluten-free products and infused oils.

“It’s not just about making money,” said Chou. “You’ve got to sell proud.”

But Chou also believes proprietors need to cater to all their customers, as best they can, in both inventory and price.

For customers looking to stay awhile, Chou plans to include a small cafe area with a coffee bar, muffins, bagels, deli foods, and Chinese take-out meals. Upstairs, customers can lounge on new couches and access Wi-Fi.

“I want it [the store] to be complete,” said Chou.

Chou’s sister will help him manage the Putney General Store. Chou will continue to commute between Vermont and Sterling, Mass.

Once the grocery store is running and financially stable, Chou will open a Chinese restaurant on the store’s second floor.

“Everyone sells pizza and sandwiches in town,” he said.

The menu would provide both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Chou, who calls himself a perpetual student, visits a new restaurant once a week to find new dishes.

“I’ve always loved it,” said Chou about the restaurant business.

Lyssa Papazian, Historic Preservation Consultant with the Putney Historical Society, is working with Chou as he gets ready for the G Store’s re-opening.

She has visited his store in Sterling and believes that the community will take to Chou.

“He’s a good guy. Full of energy and ambition. And smart,” said Papazian.

The historical society had exhausted its search for an operator in the months after the Lisais decided against taking the reins.

“Ming found us,” Papazian added, noting how much Chou wants to relocate to Vermont.

Papazian said the more she works with Chou, the happier she feels about the historical society’s choice to bring him on board.

Papazian can attest to the quality of Chou’s cooking, having sampled the Chinese and American-style dishes he prepares at Appletown. She said that he is taking baking classes so that he can dish up organic and gluten-free baked goods for Putney.

She looks forward to the opening of the Chinese restaurant. Her children attend The Putney School and have informed her the whole school “can’t wait.” Papazian said she’s also excited about Chou setting up a meat counter.

“We might be too slow for him,” Papazian joked. “He’ll say to me, ‘So, it’s [construction] taking long now.’ And I have to say, ‘Really, we’re on track.’”

Papazian said that the historical society will host volunteer activities over the summer, such as a painting party, to take pressure off project finances.

Despite careful budgeting, the Putney General Store rebuild project has expanded and may have additional financial needs. Papazian said that she doesn’t have solid numbers yet, but that she may “need to go out for money” to put the finishing touches on the store.

But the General Store has come so far that Papazian gives the impression the community won’t stop until its G Store is restored.

“The sprinkler system - it’s in and it’s on,” she said.

The historical society will lend Chou as much support as he wants, but she doubts he will need them.

“He’s already got a website and already printed T-shirts,” she said.

According to Papazian, the construction work on the store is due to complete July 15. Chou will need a few months to move in shelves and inventory.

Chou aims to open the store in time for Labor Day. Or sooner.

Papazian said that the historical society will throw a “grand celebration” when the store reopens its doors to the community.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #100 (Wednesday, May 11, 2011).

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