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Where everybody knows your name

Ferns is one of the last old-time general stores

Email|Print| Text size + By Davis Bushnell
Globe Correspondent / February 14, 2008

Ferns Country Store has been open for all of four years. It just seems like forever.

Maybe that's because the store's wood-frame building, situated just off a small rotary in Carlisle center, has been standing since 1928. Or that the site has been home to various businesses since it was developed in 1844.

Whatever its history, Ferns is a landmark in this upscale community of 5,436. And its owners make a point of being good neighbors.

"Ferns is so welcoming, a landmark where you always run into friends," Casey Smith, a mother of four, said during a noontime visit to the store last week.

"When we moved here three years ago, the store's friendly atmosphere and offerings solidified our good feelings about the community," added Linda Tonies, with 4-year-old daughter Emma in tow.

"We've become part of families all over town," said co-owner Larry A. Bearfield. He and his wife, Robin Emerson, purchased Daisy's Market in December 2003 for less than $500,000. After renovation costs amounting to "five figures," Bearfield said, they opened the store in January 2004.

Today, Ferns is not only the town's one year-round retailer (Kimball Farm's ice cream stand is open during the summer), it's one of a dwindling number of country stores left in the United States. The store was recently recognized as "retailer of the year" in Massachusetts.

In the past, nearly every village in rural New England had a country store that would serve the needs of all the inhabitants, including livestock, said Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, executive director of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores. The current roster of 43 members for the alliance, which he says is the only trade group of its type in the nation, attests to the changing times.

Country store owners everywhere "have to do a dance of whatever it takes to survive," Bathory-Kitsz said, and that isn't easy, given the presence of supermarket and discount grocery chains.

But the current owners had confidence in their investment. "We knew what the business could become because of our marketing backgrounds," said Bearfield. "It's the old build-it-and-they-will-come notion. We decided on a series of bite-size changes, a slower approach that the community has responded to."

The 800-square-foot store shoehorns in some 1,300 items, including grocery, bakery, and deli goods and gifts. The merchandise includes the familiar, such as bags of charcoal or cups of chili. But there are also things you won't find at the local Stop & Shop: a plug of bubblegum for a nickel; Carlisle honey for $7.50 a pound; free use of a bicycle tire pump; or New England weather sticks, which are hung outside to monitor changing conditions.

Though the owners want to expand the store and increase sales, it's clear they have already made an impression on the community and beyond.

Last year, the store was named Retailer of the Year by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and Business of the Year by the Middlesex West Chamber of Commerce, which has offices in Acton. Both organizations cited the store's community outreach.

"We look for hidden jewels in communities, companies that are doing things right," said Jon Hurst, president of the 3,000-member retailers association. He added that Ferns is one of the smallest enterprises ever selected.

Similarly, Sarah Fletcher, executive director of the Middlesex West chamber, said her group's award is based on "contributions to the betterment of a community and best business practices."

Carlisle officials also view the country store as more than a commercial venture.

"Larry and Robin are making a real commitment to make the store the center of town activities," said Timothy Hult, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

Those activities include celebrations for such holidays as Halloween and Christmas, which Bearfield and Emerson help promote "in trying to make the town a better place," said Police Chief John Sullivan, adding, "Larry's always around and about."

In the 1980s and 1990s, Bearfield, 56, and Emerson, who says she is in her early 50s, worked in the advertising-public relations business in Boston. (Emerson is not related to the Concord Emersons.)

Bearfield, who grew up in Newton, drives around in a '56 Chevy pickup with a tagline on its side, "Work Hahd, Play Hahda." He also publishes an online newsletter (fernscountrystore.com) that reports on what's going on in both the store and community, and is laced with his witticisms.

On the naming of the store, for example, the website goes on and on about an early-20th-century doyenne of Carlisle named Fern. Then at the end of his narrative, there's an asterisk with the note: "Nah. We made the whole story up. Truth is, it's just a nice plant that's common in Carlisle."

However, Bearfield is dead serious about making a go of the store long-term. Annual sales are "under $1 million," he said. While the store "is profitable, it's not as much as we would like it to be."

Key to increasing sales, he said, is building an addition, a project now in the final permitting process. Approval is expected "in the next few months," he said. He also expects a final vote in November "on the undrying of the town" to be favorable. If that's the case, he said, the store will have a beer and wine license.

"We have to take the store to the next level because right now, the operation is not sustainable," he said.

The store has two full-time employees and 25 part-timers, most of them employed during the summer. Bathory-Kitsz noted that strain on manpower, saying, "Family members run these stores because they can't afford big staffs."

Bearfield and Emerson have two sons, Jay, 31, and James, 26. "They have their own separate career interests, so it's hard to say now whether the store might figure in their futures," Bearfield said.

For now, Bearfield said he and his wife, while facing business challenges, "are, for the first time in our careers, getting thanks every day from customers. That fuels our passion for what we're doing."

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