Preservation’s underway for Bovina’s historic Russell’s Store

By Matthew J. Perry
The rumors have been circulating that the end is near for yet another of a dying breed; the rural general store.
But preservation of the store in question, Russell’s, which sits at the eastern edge of the hamlet of Bovina near the intersection of county routes 5 and 6, is the expressed intent of the Bovina Historical Society, the MARK Project of Margaretville, and any number of private citizens. Nevertheless, with interested parties moving cautiously into alignment, Russell’s indeed may be shuttered temporarily before re-emerging as a combine of general store, hub of local craftsmanship and, it is hoped, the new home of the post office.
A confluence of factors has brought the long-term fate of the store into question. For several years it has been managed by Tim Bray, owner of a local engineering firm. Sources say that the strain of running a sideline business, at a significant loss, drove his decision not to renew his lease on the building, which expires today. Bray could not be reached for comment. “Tim loves the store,” said one person interviewed. “But he just can’t do it anymore.”
“Tim’s devotion came out of a desire to keep the community together,” says historical society president Sibel Finn.
The historical society, which owns the building, had long been interested in moving the hamlet’s post office into the store. It looked on Bray’s decision as an opportunity to push forward with that plan; currently, the post office is wedged into a cramped corner of the community building, further down the street.
In February, MARK Project director Peg Ellsworth announced, in a town meeting, that an anonymous Bovina donor had made a generous donation to her organization. Out of respect to the community of origin, the money was earmarked for a project that would enhance it: the refurbishment and expansion of Russell’s Store seemed to be the ideal project.
Meanwhile, several people expressed interest, or outright enthusiasm, for picking up where Bray leaves off. One, Bea Sohni, already has had conversations with Bray. When news of his decision began to circulate, Sohni made her interest in succeeding Bray public knowledge. This month she was granted a dba (doing business as) business certificate.
Finn confirmed that Sohni is one of “two or three” lessees that the society is considering for the new management. While discussion and interviews with interested parties have been convened, a decision has yet to be made. That will wait until April 21, when a vote by the society’s board of trustees will determine which candidate is awarded the lease.
Then it will be a case of making plans that balance a proud community’s devotion to its past with realities of 21st-century business, which require an innovative approach to promotion and a formula for making money in a sparsely populated region.
Ellsworth says that MARK will lend its expertise in planning and community outreach. “The general store is only one component of the building,” she said on Monday. “It’s such a valuable resource that it needs a support mechanism.” At the outset that support would include feasibility study, to be followed grant applications and possibly outside consultation. MARK has no restrictions on how it chooses to spend the donation.
But Ellsworth also envisions a diplomatic role for her organization in a community that is protective of its past and its present asset. Some historical society members see enormous civic potential in moving the post office into a larger space. Finn discussed the possibility at the March town board meeting and was received with interest and caution. A plan to relocate a public trust will have to be fleshed out; the long- term viability of the post office’s new home would need to be assured. Such is the purpose of a feasibility study, says Ellsworth.
The general store would still be general say several individuals, but dynamically so, a showcase for local artisans and farmers, for anything that makes Bovina distinct. The second floor of the building is currently used only for storage; should operations expand there, a second exit would need to be constructed. All renovations will have to meet approval of the historical society.