If you have just about had it with trendy, overpriced, sterile, pretentious, overcrowded retail and food stores in the Boston area, take a respite from this 21st century overload and travel to quieter New England regions that feature good old-fashioned, traditional country and general stores.
Proving that there’s no need to travel all the way to Vermont or New Hampshire — where we expect great country and general stores to be located — these historic gems once reigned as the “go to” stores in small towns many years ago, but today stand as local treasures that have thankfully survived the strong competition from big box stores and other chains.
English lesson for the day before sharing with you great country and general stores within a day trip from Boston: Merriam Webster defines a country store as “a retail store carrying widely diversified goods, supplies, and equipment originally for serving a sparsely populated region.” A general store can be defined as “a store, usually in a rural area, that sells a wide variety of merchandise, as clothing, food, or hardware, but is not divided into departments.”
As you can see, country stores and general stores can have significant overlap. One thing is for certain, though: be assured the experience will bring you back to another place and time. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when visiting one of these great retro stores!
Here are five wonderful country and general stores within 90 minutes of Boston that will instantly bring you into the traditional New England retail scene…
Harvard General Store, Harvard, Mass.
Every town should have a place like the Harvard General Store. Located in the heart of a truly quiet, picturesque north central Massachusetts town, the Harvard General Store serves as kind of an unofficial community meeting place. It’s the perfect place for travelers, bicyclists, motorcycle riders and Harvard residents to sit, relax, enjoy some coffee, read the newspaper and feast on some homemade soups and sandwiches. Combining a cafe, an indoor farmers market, of sorts, with terrific local produce, a grocery store, baked goods, gifts, a wine and beer area, and a bike shop (!), the Harvard General Store certainly meets the required tenets of a traditional general store by offering a bit of everything. It’s also a private and public event venue. Before the new owner took over several years back, the Harvard General Store — dating back to 1896 — had really slipped in quality and service to the general public. It’s really great to see the Harvard General Store back in full form, fully reflecting the concept of a general store by serving as a valuable anchor to a downtown district. Oh, one more thing: the big windows overlooking the historic town common district make for a great scene with one of the truest-to-form traditional New England looks of any town in Massachusetts.
The Harvard General Store is located at 1 Still River Rd. in Harvard. Tel. (978) 430-0062. Distance from Boston: about 35 miles or a one hour drive. More on the Harvard General Store
The Country Store in Petersham, Petersham, Mass.
The Country Store in Petersham offers a cafe, grocery store, gift area, ice cream parlor and Vermont Cheeses, but, more importantly a historic presence so mighty that it has been the central heart and pulse of a beautiful New England town dating all the way back to 1843. Well, almost. You see, after serving the community since 1843, the Petersham Country Store sadly closed in 2012. A strong community resolve, however, stopped this landmark from becoming a faded memory as the East Quabbin Landtrust purchased the building in 2013 and reopened it in 2014 under the management of Ari and Jeanneane Pugliese — thus proving that it does “take a village” to make a community great!
The Country Store in Petersham is better than ever with its traditional small town spirit revived and a dedication to delicious foods that have more of a “natural” approach — that is, locally sourced ham with no nitrates, produce from nearby farms, gluten free sandwiches, and homemade pizza without the excessive preservatives. The paninis are tremendous!
There is a wonderful leisurely vibe to the place, and the owners are so pleasant. While the dining room is quaint, rustic and relaxing, some prefer to take their meals across the street, and for good reason: the Petersham town common is one of the most beautiful in all New England…
One of my friends who owns property in Athol, near Petersham, has told me a few times that the people that live in this north central Massachusetts region are some of the nicest he has ever met. He should know, having traveled around the world serving as a U.S. Army soldier. That certainly seems to be true, judging from the continuous conversations going on in the Country Store in Petersham amongst neighbors, friends and strangers. It is that friendliness that feels so welcoming, especially those coming from the Boston area who don’t always see this down-to-earth, slower pace of life. It’s almost like culture shock!
The Country Store in Petersham offers that friendliness with a good dose of deliciousness, history and small town feel. If you need to unwind a little and meaningfully connect with small town America, I recommend taking this day trip as soon as you can!
The Country Store in Petersham is located at 2 North Main St. in Petersham. Tel. 978-724-2000. Distance from Boston: about 74 miles, or a 90 minute drive. More on the Country Store in Petersham
Grafton Country Store, Grafton, Mass.
Looking more like some place you’d find in Vermont, the reality is that the beautiful Grafton Country Store is located only 10 minutes from Worcester — the second most populous city in New England. Small town Grafton is the opposite of Worcester with its pretty town common, the historic Grafton Inn, and the Grafton Country Store to lend true New England authenticity.
When entering the Grafton Country Store, it feels like 100 pounds have been lifted from your shoulders. Situated across from the beautiful town common, the Grafton Country Store is an idyllic country store located in a memorable New England historic district. The cafe section offers old-time ambiance with its scenic town common views, and a place to enjoy coffee, chai baked goods, Gifford Ice Cream and more. If we lived in Grafton, I think we’d be coming here every day as a best way to connect with the town!
The Grafton Country Store serves as a fabulous trip back in time — with a building dating back to 1806, wooden floors, exposed beams, and familiar country store offerings including jewelry, jams and jellies, stationery, candles, pottery and American-made gifts from local artisans. It’s really an ideal place to go for affordable gifts that you might not find anywhere else. The Dauphinais family clearly takes pride of ownership here. We recently met Carol Dauphinais, and she really made us feel at home — just like family. Carol grew up four houses away from the Grafton Country Store and from what we gathered, it was like a dream-come-true for her to own this wonderful slice of traditional Americana. Ultimately, the Grafton Country Store represents what makes small businesses so great.
The Grafton Country Store is located at 2 Grafton Common, Grafton MA. Tel. 508-839-4898. Distance from Boston: about 44 miles, or a 55 minute drive. More about the Grafton Country Store
Old Country Store and Emporium, West Mansfield, Mass.
For many years, I did not know that a country store was located 20 minutes from our suburban Boston home. I found out through a late night television and, on the next day, made a beeline to the Old Country Store and Emporium in West Mansfield to find out if this was the “real deal.”
It sure was, and more. The Old Country Store and Emporium has been around since Andrew Jackson became our seventh U.S. president! The Old Country Store now houses an astounding 17,000 square feet of familiar and hard-to-find country store merchandise. You could get lost in the nooks and crannies of this country store, but you’ll never feel lost, as the classic country store feel evokes warmth and nostalgia virtually every step of the way. We always make a note of putting a coin into the player piano!
Navigating the old wooden floors of the Old Country Store and Emporium can be challenging as the specialty foods, a candy counter, toys, player pianos, furniture, hardware items, jewelry, apothecary, outdoor living, home decor, furniture and lighting products from over 230 suppliers is spread out in two separate rooms.
Shopping here can get expensive, given the variety of merchandise, but know that there are always the old, affordable country store standbys like candles, collectible signs, homemade fudge, Vermont cheese, peanut butter made in front of you by an old-time machine, and jumbo pickles from the barrel.
It’s hard to believe that this amazing country store — surely one of the best in New England — is located in a Boston suburb!
The Old Country Store and Emporium is located at 26 Otis St., Mansfield. Tel. 508-339-8128. Distance from Boston: about 35 miles, or a 50 minute drive. More on the Old Country Store and Emporium
Wayside Country Store, Marlborough, Mass.
Marlborough isn’t exactly a country town, but traveling near the Sudbury border affords more rural scenes and destinations like the Wayside Country Store — very close to the famous Longfellow’s Wayside Inn (but with no relation). This historic retail landmark has a rather fascinating story as Henry Ford owned and operated the store starting in 1929. Since Ford, the Wayside Country Store has gone through many changes, but its current owners have run the store since 1975 with some renovations and additions along the way — but without ever compromising the historical integrity and look of the store.
The Wayside Country Store is more than just a pretty traditional New England face, though, with its great variety of collectibles, gifts, gadgets, chocolates and other candies, kitchenware, home furnishings, quilts and dolls. The food area is another highlight with a pot belly stove, pickle barrel and Stonewall Kitchen items, corn meal, wheat flour, ginger snaps and Westminster oyster crackers.
The Wayside Country Store in located at 1015 Boston Post Rd. (Route 20) in Marlborough. Tel. 978-481-3458. Distance from Boston: about 25 miles, or a 50 minute drive. More about the Wayside Country Store
Ferns Country Store, Carlisle Mass.
What’s better than a convenience store and deli? Why, a historical convenience store and deli, of course!
The Carlisle center site — where Ferns Country Store provides a valuable service for locals and travelers — has been around as a country store since 1844. The slower pace, leisurely conversations, and an authentic sense of community at Ferns feels more like Vermont than suburban Boston. That’s a good thing, as the old fashioned way of life here is a welcome respite from the nearby congested highways and other 21sty century stresses. It’s a welcoming New England-style country store scene where antiques, a tin ceiling, rocking chairs on the front porch and American flags draping the outside of the building bring you right into yesteryear. It’s a great place to sit down for a cup of coffee and a fresh sandwich, panini, bowl of homemade soup or pizza.
Ferns is more of a food store and cafe than a gift and general retail store although you will find many locally made items here including t-shirts, hats, and hand sewn bead work with Native American motifs. The aroma of baked goods permeating Ferns evokes memories of grandma baking all day. You won’t see grandma here, but you get the picture!
Owners Robin and Larry are old-fashioned and friendly with a keen 21 century business acumen. They knew that a grocery store, deli, cafe with sit down area, and a wine and beer section would fill a niche in quiet Carlisle, as well as for travelers that long for a country store not too far from the Route 128 (I will never call it Route 95!) commuting corridor and Boston. It’s a practical business, too, where you’ll probably find everything you need here. What a gem of a genuine retro store!
Ferns Country Store in located at 8 Lowell St. in Carlisle. Tel. 978- 369-0200. Distance from Boston: about 25 miles, or a 70 minute drive. More about Ferns Country Store
Editor’s note: When traveling to places like Harvard, Petersham and Grafton, be sure to discover the beautiful town commons across Massachusetts. I have written a book, Massachusetts Town Greens, that explores the history of these remarkable greens and provide a guide to current events at each town common. I included Harvard, Petersham, Grafton and Mansfield in the book, as well as other significantly historic, “must-see” town commons in Massachusetts. All these town greens are free to explore and a great way to relax, connect with towns, and take in, depending upon the community, a concert, farmers market, fall festival, tree lighting Christmas ceremony, or town day!