Lyman Orton, proprietor of The Vermont Country StorePhoto Credit : Corey Hendrickson
When Vrest Orton first fulfilled his dream of opening an old-fashioned country store in Weston, Vermont, in 1946 — a store that looked very much like the one his own father and grandfather had operated in North Calais, Vermont a few decades earlier — he likely couldn’t have imagined that it would become an iconic New England retailer whose catalogs would eventually be found in millions of homes. But in the hands of Vrest’s son Lyman, and later, his sons, The Vermont Country Store has reached its 75th anniversary year as more than a business success story: It has also been a driving force in building and supporting community in Vermont and, through the work of Community Heart & Soul, across the country.
Yankee recently caught up with Lyman Orton at The Vermont Country Store’s headquarters for a story in the September/October issue [“Up Close”]. Here’s a bit more of what we talked about with this native Vermonter, businessman, and philanthropist (and proud grandfather), who calls himself a storekeeper at heart.Your parents, Vrest and Mildred Orton, opened The Vermont Country Store before you were even in first grade. What’s a favorite memory of working in the store when you were a youngster? Waiting on customers and adding up their purchases. This was before the sales tax, of course! I used chalk and a school slate, which the store also used to sell back then — “the Silent Slate,” it was called, because it had red felt around the outside to keep it from rubbing against things. So as a kid, I got very good at adding, and since sometimes people would look at me with a little disbelief, I’d say, “Oh here, you can check it out,” and turn the slate around and let them see for themselves. Was there ever a question about whether you’d go into the family business? Not at all. When I graduated from Middlebury College in ’63, my roommate went into the Peace Corps and I put my apron on and went back to work. One of my first jobs was to order things and control the inventory, and I started doing copywriting for the catalog, too. That was important, because I was always asking myself what the “headline” was, what the unique selling benefit of this thing was. If you can’t come up with a unique selling benefit, forget it — you don’t have a product! You succeeded your dad as head of the company back in the 1970s. Tell us a little about that era. In 1973 there was the oil embargo, and overnight the world changed. Gas went up, there were lines at gas stations, and nobody was driving. And just within days, our catalog orders jumped up 30 percent! And that’s when I went, hmm, we’re really on to something here. It demonstrated the potential of mail-order. And that’s when I decided it’s a heck of a lot better to expand the mail-order side than to just build lots and lots of stores. We’ve got the two stores in Vermont, the original one in Weston and the Rockingham one. But to open a Vermont Country Store in New Hampshire? On the coast of Maine? Or a mall? No way. I never thought that made any sense. But we did start building up the mail-order at that time. My guide to growth was to only grow as fast as we could get the packages out the door. Otherwise, we would tick off a lot of customers. What are some of the more unusual products you’ve found for The Vermont Country Store catalog? It’s funny, when I would go to trade shows, the tables would be draped with cloth and I’d always ask, “Well, what do you have under the table?” Because I’d learned that’s where you could find the stuff that wasn’t new, maybe, but it was still amazing. That’s what we were always chasing: not the newest thing, but the things people remembered and were still great. Here’s a good example. Remember when digital watches came out? I think Bill Clinton made them popular. Right around that era. Well, I called up Timex in Connecticut and said, “Do you have any of the original Timex watches left?” I was thinking of the ones from those ads in the ’50s where they did all these crazy stunts to the watches — “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” So we got the original watches and put them in the catalog, and one day the president of Timex calls up and says, “My people tell me you’re selling more of these watches than anybody in America. You’re a country store. What are you doing with them?” I said, “Well, we’re selling them and, um, please keep making them! Because there are a lot of people out there who still want them.” Another one was rehabbed Electrolux vacuum cleaners from the 1950s. We sold enormous numbers of them before the supplier finally ran out, and we were begging him to please find some more. You just never know what’s going to sell. What are some popular items that The Vermont Country Store sells today? Everybody wants to know, “What’s your best-seller?” And I say, “Well, if I tell you I’ll have to kill you.” [Laughs.] Probably the top nostalgic reminder that people have is scent. It’s a powerful thing. So we have Evening in Paris perfume, which used to be a dime store perfume, the sort of thing that a father might take his son to buy for a Mother’s Day gift and so on. There are people who come into the store and see it and say “I remember my mom wearing that” or “Oh my God, I wore that on my wedding day.” Homespun tablecloths, we’ve carried forever and ever. Oilcloth ones too. Percale sheets, flannel sheets. Nightgowns. Hundred-percent cotton duck shower curtains. We do a lot with seersucker in our sub-brand line of men’s clothes, Orton Brothers — it’s just a timeless fabric that you can wear all day, and if it wrinkles you don’t really even notice. A lot of these we’ve had for years and years — but if a product sells, I don’t want to replace it. We’re not a fashion business. We always ask ourselves what is most convenient to the customers rather than what is most convenient to us. You have three sons in the business with you: Cabot, Gardner, and Eliot. What do you see as their role in continuing the legacy of The Vermont Country Store? They aren’t vice president of this or that, but instead their job is to run the board — we have some outside directors there — and to work with management and hold management accountable. Their role is to keep the continuum going from what they’ve learned from me, to pull the family ownership forward. Because, yup, family ownership has a different relationship to customers than corporate ownership, right? It drives me crazy when I call up an airline and I’m put on hold, and their silly music plays, and there’s a recording that tells me how “important” I am to them. I mean, I’ve personally made a recording for the store’s [customer service line], and the boys have done things in that vein too, but our default is to have someone pick up the darn phone when you call us! And all of us here are storekeepers. One of the things I used to say is that The Vermont Country Store is three stores: We have a wooden store, meaning the stores in Weston and Rockingham. We have a paper store, the catalog. And we have a digital store, the website. But they’re all stores. You walk into them or you page through them or you click on them, but they should still feel like welcoming spaces. So getting everybody to think of themselves as storekeepers is what we’ve worked on for years, because that’s what we are. Some of us may be experts in other kinds of things too, but we all at heart gotta be storekeepers.