Toby Talbot  /  AP
This Sept. 14, 2011 photo shows the front of the Hastings Store in West Danville, Vt. At Hastings Store, owner Garey Larrabee is also the postmaster and cook, running a full-service Post Office and cooking up old-fashioned donuts for the regulars who come in to catch up on gossip and pick up mail, lingering around the wall of boxes with the three-digit dial combination locks. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
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updated 9/19/2011 8:43:57 AM ET 2011-09-19T12:43:57

At Hussey's General Store in Windsor, Maine, offbeat merchandise is a specialty. The sign out front says so, in no uncertain terms: "Guns, Wedding Gowns, Cold Beer."

At the Mansfield (Conn.) General Store, it's not just basic groceries, takeout sandwiches and antiques. They have live music twice a week, including flamenco guitarists on Friday afternoons.

At Hastings Store in West Danville, Vt., co-owner Garey Larrabee is also the postmaster and cook, running a full-service post office and cooking up old-fashioned doughnuts for the regulars who come in to catch up on gossip and pick up mail, lingering around the wall of boxes with the three-digit dial combination locks.

His wife, whose family has run the place for almost 100 years, is a justice of the peace. She sometimes marries people, right there in the store.

Turns out, New England's general stores aren't as general as they used to be.

With their creaky wooden floors, old-fashioned keepsakes and inventory that runs the gamut from snow shovels to wedding dresses, they rely on nostalgia and creative specialties to compete in a Walmart world.

"The best of these stores are the heart of their communities," said Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. "They're the places where people gather, connect with each other. They really make a place a community."

Come fall foliage season, they're also big draws for visitors looking to take home a piece of New England.

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"We sell the past," said Mary Anne Boyd, who runs The Brewster Store, a summer institution on Massachusetts' Cape Cod.

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In Little Compton, R.I., Gray's Store, which dates to around 1788, brings them in with an old-fashioned marble soda fountain, cigar and tobacco cases, and Rhode Island johnnycakes (corncakes). Its owners proudly call it the nation's oldest operating general store in America, though others have staked similar claims.

Whichever was first, Gray's is the real thing: It's one part museum and one part country store, with gifts, collectibles and vintage retail products like Lux dishwashing liquid.

"Everything's just as it was 100 years ago," says owner Grayton Waite, 59, whose great-great-grandfather bought the place in 1879.

In Mansfield, Conn., the Mansfield General Store is a relative newcomer to the tradition. Located in a 19th-century house just down the road from the University of Connecticut, it offers basic grocery and bakery items as well as salads, soups and takeout deli food.

Sisters Lisa Rich and Keleigh Shumbo, who opened it three years ago, also peddle antiques, books and flowers, and offer live music on Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings. The Sunday morning brunch, which is $10, comes with local musicians who sing for their supper.

"I don't try to compete," Shumbo said. "We're just unique, we're different. We're down to earth."

Up on the Cape, the Brewster Store in Brewster, Mass. — a former church building that dates to 1852 and has been a store since 1866 — not only sells penny candy from wooden shelves and you-pick-it glass jars, but it also sometimes encourages young children to use pencil and paper to total up their purchases before they get to the counter.

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The nickelodeon plays music, there's an ice cream operation — the Brewster Scoop — that's run from a cottage next store between Memorial Day and Labor Day and the second floor has an area dedicated to military toys and World War II-era posters.

It's also got a potbellied stove where folks gather for coffee and conversation. "By 7 o'clock, we've solved the problems of the world," says one regular.

And they've got lamp oil. Hey, you never know. They get hurricanes up here.

"We feel like we're the owners of an institution, and we're safeguarding it," said Boyd, who's been running the place with husband George since 1986. "If Brewster were a human being, the store would be its heart."

The same goes for the Hastings Store, where one Hastings or another has been running things in the wooden building across the street from Joe's Pond since 1913.

Larrabee and wife Jane, who grew up in the place, are the current owners.

"I'm the vice president of comings and goings," cracks Jane Larrabee, 63.

The shelves are chockablock with maple syrup, maple cookies, hunting journals, antique bottles and groceries. There are T-shirts and sweatshirts and a mounted buck's head on one wall.

Located on the road between the state capital in Montpelier and the lush vacationland known as the Northeast Kingdom, Hastings Store is a frequent stop-off for travelers.

"We're cute," Larrabee said. "So people stop in and take photographs of the store and say, 'Oh, this is what it was like when I was a kid.'"

In neighboring New Hampshire, the Old Country Store and Museum in Moultonborough boasts it's "Perhaps the oldest in the United States, a store since 1781."

Here, the emphasis is on the "old." It sells cookbooks, cookware, kitchen gadgets, wrought-iron hardware, clothing, Cabot cheese that is aged in a cellar downstairs, maple syrup that's made in an apartment upstairs and pickles from a porcelain barrel in the front.

"When you walk into the store, you'd swear you just walked back 150 years," says clerk Jonathan Hayden, who's married to one of the Holdens, the family that has owned it since 1973. "We've been as lucky as we have been because we have not changed a thing. Most of our business — 75 percent — is repeat business, locals. The rest is 'Oh, my God, when you go there, you must stop at this place. You won't believe it!'" he said.

The store, which offers 7,000 products, is a popular destination for fall foliage bus tours.

Hussey's General Store, which dates to 1923, proudly boasts: "If we ain't got it, you don't need it."

And they have almost everything, from groceries and hardware to the second-floor bridal shop — next to the gun section — with gowns ranging in price from $100 to $900.

"We have people come in, and they want to buy a gun and buy a wedding gown," said Kristen Austin, 26, whose great-grandparents founded the place. "Sometimes, they want to go out and take a picture of them in a wedding gown with a gun. Some people are actually looking for that shotgun wedding kind of thing."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Fall getaways! Affordable beach, mountains vacations

  1. Closed captioning of: Fall getaways! Affordable beach, mountains vacations

    >>> this morning on today's travel fall getaways at great prices. if you think a tropical paradise or rocky mountain resort is out of reach think again. " travel & leisure" has put together great fall travel deals at some of the top destinations. the magazine's features editor joins us. times are tough for a lot of folks but there is evidence people are still getting out there, traveling still and finding some good deals now.

    >> we are thrilled to see a new survey shows that more americans, 86% in fact, are going to be traveling this fall for leisure than they did last year at this time. we are definitely seeing an interest in the connections and the experiences that travel brings. in fact, " travel & leisure" this weekend in new york is hosting our first ever global bazaar. and that is going to be an event that we've seen incredible feedback from. people are very interested. we are bringing 35 countries to new york .

    >> here.

    >> to the park avenue armory . and the tickets are almost sold out but you can go to tl global bazaar to get tickets and find out more information.

    >> all right. so you can get a little travel right here in new york . meanwhile let's talk about deals that you found starting off with the property that you loved. you talked about it before in jamaica. and it is the rock house hotel.

    >> the rock house is doing something that i almost think is too good to be true but i've spoken to them and they've said it's officially true. they're offering four nights of this beautiful hotel on the cliffs in negril including champagne welcome, entire bottle, and a couples' massage for under $400. so literally for $94 a night you can stay at one of my favorite hotels in the world and actually one of tnl readers' favorite hotels in the world.

    >> a piece of paradise. here on the east coast a place i've checked out on nantucket island . nantucket is beautiful during the summer. always hard to get a room there.

    >> indian summer is the time to go because the weather is still warm but the prices are low. about a hundred dollars less to stay here now. $125 and they're throwing in another $50 coupon for massages. we all need those.

    >> exactly. looks great. okay. next, always a nice time of year to go to hawaii. you found a great property there as well with a good deal.

    >> indeed. staying at the four seasons for under $200 is often something that seems impossible.

    >> right.

    >> staying at one of the top five resorts in all of hawaii seems like it would make it even more impossible. but the 4 seasons lodge, you can actually stay for 197 a night and this deal is going to be good through the rest of -- through november.

    >> that's amazing. a four seasons deal.

    >>> next we're going to the rivera maya in mexico. there you found another incredible bargain price trip.

    >> it's so accessible from so many different hubs. you fly into cancun, you go 50 minutes to the to the fairmont property there. it is an absolutely gorgeous property, five swimming pools, they have lots and lots of beautiful white sand beaches which is what everyone is looking for about now when they're feeling a little like they miss summer.

    >> right.

    >> and they're doing a great deal because it is " travel & leisure's" 40th anniversary, doing a special fall escape package and it's 30% off their best rate. and they're throwing in $40 per person, food and drink .

    >> that looks amazing. the whole property. beautiful. okay. and then next, you know, not only a great place to go during ski season but off-season as well. don't count out colorado. you found a ritz - carlton hotel offering good deals there, too.

    >> again, i feel like the idea of having a ritz -carlton letting you tay there for $234 a night is amazing. they have a great deal. i love the rocky mountains in the fall. incredible foliage. you can be outdoors.

    >> mountain biking and hiking.

    >> after you're done with all that you can come in and stay at the ritz -carlton. they'll give you breakfast in bed as part of the deal.

    >> maybe just cool fluf enough to light the fire place at night. thanks so much. good places to check out.

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