Bovina General Store reopens, community gathers to discuss its future

By Matthew J. Perry
A two-month hiatus has ended and the ‘closed’ sign has been taken off Russell’s Store in Bovina.
Last Saturday, the general store at the intersection of county Routes 5 and 6 was once again open for business, looking at once like a modern showcase for all things Bovina and a call to the community’s past.
The store’s resurrection coincided with a community meeting, organized by the MARK Project, which attracted dozens of Bovina residents. While it was a means to celebrate the resurrection of a community asset, the meeting also was a forum at which the challenges facing the store—chiefly a weak business climate and isolation—were discussed at length.
MARK Director Peg Ellsworth, who led the meeting, was unequivocal about the fact that the future of the store is still uncharted and that the community at large must play a role in sustaining the business.
“We need to think big and out of the box,” Ellsworth told those who had gathered in the town’s community hall. “You’re all together in a room, and that’s a start.”
The rambling 19th-century building that houses Russell’s is owned by the Bovina Historical Society. The new proprietor, Bea Sohni, took over operations after her predecessor, Bovina resident Tim Bray, declined to renew his lease on the store this spring.
The MARK Project received a gift of $6,000 from an anonymous Bovina resident several months ago, and decided to plow the money back into a Bovina project. On Saturday, Ellsworth informed the meeting that MARK also has $5,000 in an O’Connor grant that can be applied to auxiliary support for Russell’s.
The role of MARK’s resources likely will include helping Sohni develop a business plan, soliciting architectural and legal advice, and grant-writing.
When one person attending the meeting remarked that MARK’s $11,000 in total funds would not go far, Ellsworth expressed confidence that more funds would come available in the near future.
Another issue concerns the town’s post office, presently crammed into a corner of the community hall, which many would like to be moved to Russell’s. Historical Society president Sibel Finn stated that the building’s deed allows the post office to be incorporated in the building. The Bovina Town Council, however, would have to approve the move.
“Our concern is the cost,” said supervisor Tina Mole. She stated that the town board was concerned about a spike in heating, utility and maintenance bills should the general store go out of business later. What is more, she said, it is quite possible that the postal service will soon close Bovina’s office. “But we are very much in favor of moving it to the store,” she concluded.
Finn noted that the building’s deed could be problematic as well. The general sense is that it does not allow for major structural changes. It is still uncertain if such restrictions will complicate renovations or additions that would be necessary to future uses of the building, such as a second means of egress or a fire escape.
Even without any expansion, renovation certainly will be necessary if the store is to function in the long term. “It’s a maintenance disaster,” said Bray. “It’s a big box sitting above the water.”
Also unknown, judging from the reaction at the community meeting, is the prevailing vision of the store and its assets. For instance, when prompted by Ellsworth o assess the potential of the building and the general store, people described its isolation as both a strength and a weakness. It remains an open question whether a majority of the community will favor the creation of a ‘destination’ that attracts tourists.
“You’ve got to decide if you actually want people turning off Route 28 to come find it,” Ellsworth said.
In the meantime, said Finn, Russell’s management is open to suggestions. “Bea is totally open to people telling her what they want and need there,” she said. “If something needs to change, she’s going to change it.”
As other possible uses were considered—a farmer’s market, an artist’s co-op, upstairs office space, community events—it became clear to all in attendance that the town itself will likely decide the fate of the new store. “It has to become indispensable,” said one resident.
“It has to be sustained by us,” said another.
Hours of operation are not finalized, but Russell’s will likely operate from 7 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. on weekdays, and from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekends. It will be closed Tuesdays.