Alden Pellett  /  AP
Vermont Country Store owner Lyman Orton, left, and president and CEO Bill Shouldice pose outside the store in Weston, Vt. Orton has two stores, but 75 percent of business comes through the catalog.
updated 5/31/2005 8:51:03 PM ET 2005-06-01T00:51:03

The Vermont Country Store’s future is in your past. The mostly mail-order business specializes in selling things that have all but disappeared from store shelves but not from people’s memories: Dick and Jane books. Tangee lipstick. Ship’n Shore clothing. Charles Chips. Beeman’s chewing gum. Pants stretchers. Horlick’s malted milk tablets. Men’s opera slippers.

All the latest stuff — from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Tangee lipstick, for example, which looks orange in the tube but is said to change subtly to adapt to a woman’s skin tone, is “huge for us,” said Bill Shouldice, president and chief executive.

Tangee — “The Brightest Jewel of All Can Be Your Lips” — was all the rage in the 1940s and ’50s, but eventually went off the market. Vermont Country Store marketers tracked down the people who had produced it and won permission to bring it back.

“I wore this when I was in Baylor University 55 years ago dating my husband,” writes a Country Store customer from Texas. “I had him kiss me with it on today and he said it was the same! Thank you for finding it.”

A winner from the start
It has been a winning formula since Vrest Orton mailed his first catalog in 1945 and then opened a store in Weston the following year. That first catalog, 12 pages promoting 36 items, was printed on a press in the garage and sent to those on the Ortons’ Christmas card list.

Today the company sends out millions of catalogs a year and, with 400 full- and part-time employees, does $100 million in sales, attracting a million customers a year to its two stores — one in Weston, the other in Rockingham — and through its catalog and Web site.

The company’s call centers and distribution centers remain in Vermont, as other companies shift their customer service operations to India and position their warehouses closer to the geographical center of the country or near major UPS and Fedex hubs.

“We have a policy that all Vermont Country Store operations will be run out of Vermont, and we will figure out how to compete on that basis,” Shouldice said.

Vrest Orton would feel very much at home browsing the store he founded or flipping through the pages of the catalog he started. His son Lyman and his grandsons Gardner, Cabot and Eliot have made sure of that.

Cheese wheels and penny candy
The store seems unchanged, with wheels of cheese, counters of penny candy, and jars of dill pickles greeting visitors; a checkerboard is set up behind the original pot belly stove. Tacked on the wall is a yellowed article about the 1949 state checkers championship held in the store.

Alden Pellett  /  AP
Julie Henderson, center, and her daughter, Caroline Smith of Ridgefield, Conn., pick out candies at the Vermont Country Store in Weston, Vt., while Henderson's mother, Marsha Henderson, looks on.
And the catalog has the look and feel of something published decades ago. The business mails out a black-and-white catalog, consisting mostly of quaint little drawings instead of photos, to customers born before 1950.

It also puts out a color catalog with products aimed at baby boomers — the board game Candy Land, a Bozo punching bag, a hand-cranked Boston pencil sharpener, rotary dial telephones, a Smith Corona electric typewriter — for those born after 1950.

Despite the company’s foray into the online world, Shouldice said 75 percent of the business comes through the catalog and he expects that to continue.

“We think there is great potential in the Internet, but we are not betting the farm on it,” he said. “We think that the catalog, being in people’s mailboxes, will be our primary business for many years to come.”

All in the family
He said one big reason for the success of the Vermont Country Store is that it remains a family-owned business and is not a publicly traded company.

“Those other companies, what they have to do is to satisfy Wall Street with growth, they have to satisfy somebody besides four guys,” he said, referring to the Ortons.

What is most important for Shouldice is that the Vermont Country Store not lose sight of what it is.

“Our niche is products that have caseloads, not tractor-trailer loads,” he said. In fact, he said, the Vermont Country Store is not interested in high-volume commodities: “As soon as a product is everywhere, we get out of it.”

In opting to remain small and true to its Vermont roots, the Vermont Country Store is heeding the advice of Vrest Orton. A half-century ago he said that he had no interest in major expansions.

“I came to Vermont to get away from big business, big government and big enterprise of all kinds,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments