Mill River — One of the only retail businesses in this village will stay open, thanks to the recent sale of the Mill River General Store to a new owner who wants to keep it largely as it is. Which means the community’s unofficial gathering place will remain intact.
Built and opened in 1840, the Mill River General Store is the longest continuously operating general store in the Berkshires. New owner Jessica Holcomb wants to keep it that way. And the man she bought it from, the legendary Dave Herrick, couldn’t be happier.
“I’m a New Englander,” said Holcomb. “And this is an old-school New England concept.”
Holcomb was living in Tennessee and visiting family in the area about a year ago. She and her husband Todd were thinking of relocating back to her native Massachusetts and they went house hunting.
“I was looking for a house and I found a store,” Holcomb said with a smile.
This will be Holcomb’s first crack at running her own business after spending the last 13 years managing bars and restaurants. And she is delighted to have relocated to the Berkshires after spending many years in Clarksville, Tenn., where Todd had been stationed in the military.
The Mill River General Store is a throwback to another era. The retail area is a one-room affair, with groceries and dry goods lining the walls. There is a deli, three tables and a serve-yourself coffee bar.
The coffee bar speaks volumes about the sense of community the place evokes. On the walls surrounding the coffee urns are about 250 ceramic coffee cups, each emblazoned with the name of a member of the store’s “coffee club” — so named for the dozens who show up at all times of day to have a cup of joe, a donut or sandwich, and share their thoughts on everything from national politics to New Marlborough Town Hall to who’s manning the Red Sox bullpen. Friday is free-coffee day for members.
And for a small place, the store has an extensive wine and beer collection, along with a full liquor license. In addition, the Mill River post office is housed inside, which is yet another reason the store is such a popular gathering place.
The sale of the store was completed yesterday — one day after April Fool’s Day, so that no one would think it was a joke, Holcomb said. Terms of the sale were not disclosed but it included the business and the building, which encompasses both the post office and a three-bedroom apartment upstairs. The asking price was $699,000, according to listing agent Wheeler & Taylor.
One longtime customer, retired judge Seymour “Sy” Rotker, walked in this morning, pulled his named cup off the hook, poured himself a cup of java and sat down at one of the tables — looking like the Mill River General Store regular he is.
Rotker explained that the cups of deceased members of the coffee club are moved up to a nearby crossbeam — “The great coffee cup in the sky,” as he put it.
“I love to hang out here, chat and have lunch,” Rotker said. It is a far cry, he says, from the lunches he used to have in New York, where he worked for 30 years in the criminal justice system, as a prosecutor and eventually, as a justice of the New York Supreme Court in Queens.
The day after the sale, Herrick could be seen at one of the tables nursing a coffee and being a presence — either to help Holcomb on her first day or maybe just out of habit. It’s also a great place for Herrick to hang his hat since he’s an emergency medical technician and a longtime member of the New Marlborough Fire Department and the rescue squad.
This is the second retirement for Herrick, now 77. The first was just before he bought the store on Jan. 4, 1992, after 30 years in sales and marketing in corporate America. Upon completing the acquisition, Herrick shut down the store to stabilize the building, cleaning decades of filth from the hardwood floors, remodeling the interior and spending a lot of money leveling a floor that was sloping badly.
In addition to groceries, the store sells a limited amount of fishing tackle. At one time, guns and ammunition were also for sale.
“We’ve always valued our relationships with locals, or anybody passing through,” Herrick said.
The last 10 years have been tough for general stores. While actual statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests they were hit hard by the recession of 2008-09. Many used to sell gasoline to help the bottom line, but new environmental regulations necessitated the replacement of underground tanks. Some stores were able to bite the bullet and replace them. Others stopped selling gas and made do with less income. Still others simply went out of business.
Two such stores in Berkshire County, the Monterey General Store and the Store at Five Corners in South Williamstown, closed in 2011 but were later sold and reopened as upscale specialty food stores and cafes. The closure of both stores caused a public outcry of regret that a community was losing part of its identity, along with a valuable retail establishment.
Actor Steven Carell, best known for his starring role in the Emmy-award-winning TV series “The Office,” spends summers with his family in Marshfield, Mass. He saw that the Marshfield Hills General Store was in distress and bought it with his sister in 2009.
“This is much more of an emotional investment than a business one,” Carell told the Boston Globe. “I saw an opportunity to help to preserve a little piece of history. I also felt that places like the Marshfield Hills General Store represent a gathering place, and give people a sense of community. These spots are growing more and more scarce. I hope to keep this particular one alive and well.”
For her part, Holcomb says she isn’t planning any big changes at her Mill River store, at least not right away.
“This is a dwindling entity,” she said of the genre. “This place is special.”