Feeds:
Posts
Comments

183726-emmanuel-sogbadji-sur-les-traces-de-paul-ahyi_ng_image_full

Photo: Cité Internationale des Arts
Emmanuel Sogbadji is one of the African artists whose work is shown at the new Togo museum, Palais de Lomé.        

Sometimes when I’ve been volunteering in ESL classes, I’ve caught the echo of African colonialism from languages that students try out on me because I don’t understand their native tongue. Somali and Eritrean students may know a little Italian, countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe speak English, people from such countries as Mali, Togo, and Congo know French.

Although multilingualism can be helpful in refugee language classes, I can’t help thinking the students wouldn’t have had to be refugees in the first place if the colonial powers hadn’t plundered Africa. I suppose that down the road, when the US starts welcoming refugees again, we’ll be getting people from Burkina Faso who know a little Chinese.

Anyway, because I had an English student from Togo who spoke French, I was not surprised to learn from today’s feature that Togo’s new national museum has French connections and a French name, Palais de Lomé.

Rebecca Anne Proctor writes at Frieze, “Festive scenes unfolded in Lomé’s botanical park in late November [2019], as drummers and colourfully clad moko jumbies, or stilt walkers, entertained guests – including President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé and artist Kehinde Wiley – at the inauguration of the Palais de Lomé, Togo’s first major contemporary art museum and the only entirely state-funded arts institution in Africa.

“This is a remarkable achievement for one of the world’s poorest countries, where almost 70 percent of the rural population lives below the global poverty line, according to a 2015 World Bank report. The new museum is also an unexpected signal of cultural openness by the historically repressive Togolese government. …

“The museum is housed in the colonial Governor’s Palace, constructed in 1905, which served as a base for the Togolese state after the country gained its independence from France in 1960. For the past 20 years, however, it sat empty, until an extensive restoration project – costing [$3.6 million] – was completed in November 2019.

“Occupying the palace’s stately banquet halls and residential quarters, the new institution is large enough to accommodate five simultaneous exhibitions and abuts an 11-hectare garden, displaying works by Togolese sculptors such as Amouzou Amouzou-Glikpa and Sadikou Oukpedjo – another first in West Africa.

” ‘Three Borders’, the most contemporary of these shows, delves openly into the turbulent history of the region. In Togolese artist Emmanuel Sogbadji’s painting ‘The Intercessor’ (2006), a tall, semi-abstract figure holds a long knife. Flanked by two men, he appears defiant in the face of an interrogation. …

“As Claude Grunitzky, a New York-based Togolese editor, told me: ‘Many creatives and artists have begun to return to Togo as “repats”, […] leading interesting projects and ventures in the creative industries.’

” ‘The Palais de Lomé is a newborn child, one we have been awaiting in Togo for so long,’ added Clay Apenouvon, one of the country’s most prominent artists, who protested against the junta in his youth before relocating to Paris in 1992. Apenouvon is setting up a second studio in Lomé, where he now spends several months of the year. Not all are so optimistic, however: a Togolese artist, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety, told me that the Palais ‘will just be for the state. It won’t help the people.’ …

“The museum’s current comprehensive public funding model distinguishes it from comparable institutions on the continent. … Half of the Palais de Lomé’s government funding is set to expire at the end of its first year, however, so [Sonia Lawson, the Palais de Lomé’s inaugural director, a former luxury goods executive for L’Oréal and LVMH,] intends to form a board of donors of African descent, who she hopes will acquire new works from the continent and its diaspora for the museum’s collection.

“As a state-backed initiative, the Palais de Lomé resembles public arts institutions in the Gulf region – such as the National Museum of Qatar, opened in 2019, and the soon-to-be-completed Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi – which aim to boost cultural capital and foster local arts communities while improving the public image of governments viewed as repressive.

“It remains to be seen whether Lomé’s newest museum will spur substantive change or merely serve a propagandistic function, but the signs thus far seem promising. With ‘Three Borders’, Togo is not only looking outwards – to its neighbours and the international art world – but reflecting inwards on its own difficult history. ”

More here.

Congress provided $25 million in aid to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and that institution turned right around and coldbloodedly furloughed people on its staff.

Meanwhile, the compassionate director of a different arts organization just wanted to figure out how to save her employees’ jobs.

Sarah Cascone reports at Artnet News that “by redeploying her staff in some ingenious new ways, the director of Texas’s Blanton Museum has managed to avoid job cuts. …

“As museums shuttered throughout the US, many were forced to cut staff through layoffs and furloughs … But thanks to some creative strategizing, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin has managed to keep its entire staff on the payroll since the school shut down operations on March 13.

“Museum director Simone Wicha, who recently published an op-ed about her approach in the Wall Street Journal, began thinking about ways to redeploy staffers who were unable to work during a prolonged shutdown. …

“ ‘From the beginning, I realized my team would likely be idle for at least four to six months and we needed to reinvent,’ Wicha told Artnet News in an email. ‘What also was clear was that social distancing would be needed for a much longer time frame, so budgeting would be different for a very long time.

‘I was distraught about what [the shutdown] might mean for our team, and started realigning the budget immediately to prevent layoffs,’ she added. ‘Beyond the financial challenges, I was especially mindful that losing our sense of purpose as a team or having individuals whose job was suddenly obsolete would create tremendous anxiety — and that’s not healthy.’

“With that in mind, Wicha asked the museum’s department heads to identify potential projects to work on during the lockdown — things that normally would be pushed to the bottom of the to-do list by more pressing day-to-day needs. Then she drafted a questionnaire for staffers, asking them to evaluate their skills in areas not necessarily related to their regular job responsibilities — were they a Photoshop whiz? A great writer?

“Wicha then matched the 32 employees whose jobs were most at risk to 30 new lockdown projects. …

The maintenance man stopped worrying about paint touchups and HVAC repair and started assisting the development department by drafting thank you notes for donors, making use of his beautiful handwriting.

“Security guards were redeployed to add ‘alt text,’ or descriptions for the visually impaired, to images on the museum website. Art handlers and event planners have been doing collection research about the museum’s lesser-known artists.

“More than just busy work, these tasks will help the museum long-term as it looks to bounce back from the extended closure. And not only are they keeping staff on the payroll, these new responsibilities have been good for morale.

“ ‘I’ve heard directly from various staff members about how they’ve enjoyed interacting with others not usually involved in their workday routine, and how they’re proud of advancing the museum’s mission for our community,’ said Wicha. …

“Although these measures have been a success, the Blanton’s finances are still shaky, and will likely remain so even after reopening.

“The Blanton’s annual operating budget is an average of $7.7 million, and the university provides about 18 percent of that, making admissions from visitors and fundraising its primary sources of income. With the doors closed, that money would no longer be coming in, but some 40 percent of the museum’s expenses went toward programming and departmental needs — installation costs, advertising, summer programming — which Wicha could cut. The rest represented salaries and benefits for the staff of 70. …

“Wicha said. ‘We’ll have to continue to be thoughtful and creative about our program in order to avoid layoffs in the future.’ The Blanton will remained closed through at least the end of June, when the University of Texas plans to announce its reopening plans.

“ ‘We won’t be going back to the same museum we left on March 13,’ said Wicha. ‘It will be a whole new experience for us and for our visitors. But I believe that sharing beautiful experiences around works of art will bring us — and keep us — together.’ More.

Photo: Kate Russell/ Blanton Museum of Art
Says Artnet News,Museum director Simone Wicha has found new projects for staff most at risk of losing their jobs during the shutdown.”

Blanton Museum's Simone Wicha inside the Ellsworth Kelly installation, Austin.

 

920x920Photo: Bill Hanisch
A Johnson & Wales alumnus and his bakery lift spirits during the pandemic.

An upbeat kind of story comes from Red Wing today, a small Minnesota town I visited when we were living in Minneapolis in the ’90s.

Cathy Free reports at the Washington Post, “When bakery owner Bill Hanisch heard traditional high school graduation ceremonies would be canceled this year, he figured he could help sweeten the day for the disappointed teens. He made a free personalized cake for each of the 220 graduating senior at his alma mater, Red Wing High School. …

“As soon as the owner of Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop posted his intentions on Facebook, he was surprised at the response. Business owners, school administrators and parents in surrounding towns like Cannon Falls, Minn., and Plum City, Wis., reached out asking if they could send him donations to make cakes for graduating seniors at their schools.

Now, he has 800 orders to fill — one cake for every senior graduating in a dozen small towns along the upper Mississippi River in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“ ‘It’s a crazy idea, but it’s really taken off and we’re all loving it,’ said Hanisch, 40, who is using the donations he has received, a total of about $10,000, for labor and ingredients only.

“The ovens at his downtown bakery are going full-time, and his ex-wife, Robin Hanisch, an ace cake decorator who works at the shop, has helped to answer the call to complete 800 graduation cakes by June 4. …

“Hanisch has already delivered about 400 cakes to six high schools. Students pick out their choice of flavors in advance (vanilla, chocolate or a mixture of both), then the cakes are decorated in their school’s colors and inscribed with their names, a mini diploma and ‘Congrats.’

“With local farmers and businesses hurting, ‘there are people who might not be able to afford a graduation cake right now,’ Hanisch said.

“Principals and teachers arrange for seniors to pick up their cakes with the caps and gowns they ordered months ago but now have to be worn at home during virtual ceremonies.

“Hanisch arrives at his shop — the only bakery in Red Wing — each morning by 2 a.m. to coordinate the day’s baking of dozens of two-layer, 7-inch cakes. Each cake costs him about $28 to make.

“ ‘It’s not a huge cake — but it’s something simple and sweet that they can have all to themselves, or they can have dinner with their family and they can all enjoy a nice slice of cake afterwards,’ he said.

” ‘These cakes are a way to let the kids know that we’re proud they made it through 12 years of school,’ he added. ‘Even though they can’t all graduate together, they deserve to be recognized. High school graduation is a big deal.’

“Hanisch, who mopped floors and rang up sales as a teenager in the bakery (then named Braschler’s), has fond memories of the cake his co-workers made for him when he graduated from Red Wing High School in 1998.

” ‘They gave me a sponge cake, and I do mean that literally,’ he said. ‘They found a giant sponge and decorated it with characters from the South Park cartoon because I lived on South Park Street and loved that show.’

“After he discovered he’d been pranked, his friends brought out an authentic graduation cake with his name on it, decorated in Red Wing’s purple and white school colors.

Hanisch enjoyed his first bakery job so much that he went on to earn a degree in baking and pastry arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., in 2000, before returning to Red Wing. …

“He bought the bakery from the previous owners, Bob and Nancy Braschler, in 2007 and now has more than 30 employees, including Robin and their two sons, ages 12 and 15. Thanks to all the graduation cake orders, he’s been able to keep 21 full-time employees on the payroll, he said, and the bakery has sold takeout orders as an essential business in the community since the start of the pandemic. …

“Hanisch’s efforts have led others in Red Wing to chip in for the 2020 graduates, said Tracy Hardyman, 50, whose son, Jacob, received a cake from Hanisch. As a volunteer with Red Wing’s nonprofit Downtown Main Street group, Hardyman said she knew that closing small businesses in the town, even temporarily, would be devastating.

“ ‘But then the “bunman” [Hanisch] stepped up and became our community bright spot with his free decorated cakes,’ she said. …

“Many of this year’s graduates started coming to his bakery for treats in grade school, said Hanisch, and more than a few have worked a mop or ran the cash register like he used to. …

“Among those who are graduating this year is Mya Benway, 17, who worked at the bakery for a year while attending Red Wing High School. …

“ ‘It’s just such a super nice thing for him to bake so many cakes for us.’

“Hanisch said the spring of 2020 will forever be etched in his memory not only as the time of the pandemic, but also as the time of 800 gift cakes with mini diplomas.”

More at the Washington Post, here.

I think if I were graduating in this time of turmoil, I’d be very grateful for a cake with my favorite flavors and my name on top, baked by a kind stranger.

Photo: CNN
Bill Hanisch, right, with a customer of the the Red Wing, Minnesota, bakery.

200513163107-01-iyw-cakes-for-graduates-exlarge-169

1158

Photo: Duolingo
Duolingo’s popular Scottish Gaelic course launched just before St Andrew’s Day.

There’s an asylum seeker from Afghanistan I’ve been working with on English. Virtually, of course. She was already very good when we started in March, and she’s now applying to grad schools in the US. An English proficiency test is part of that process.

Imagine my surprise when I heard that the free online language program Duolingo — the one that I used for a while so as to understand Erik when he speaks to my half-Swedish grandchildren — is the designated online exam for two of the universities where my young friend is sending applications!

In the same way that the previously maligned Wikipedia gradually became a trusted source, Duolingo has risen to language program of choice.

And every year, it adds options. Scottish Gaelic, anyone?

Libby Brooks writes at the Guardian, “Almost double the number of people in Scotland who already speak Scottish Gaelic have signed up to learn the language on the popular free platform Duolingo in over a month, concluding a proliferation in courses, prizes and performance in Gaelic and Scots during 2019, as younger people in particular shrug off the cultural cringe’ associated with speaking indigenous languages.

“The Duolingo course, which was launched just before St Andrew’s Day on 30 November and looks likely to be the company’s fastest-growing course ever, has garnered more than 127,000 sign-ups – 80% from Scotland itself, compared with just over 58,000 people who reported themselves as Gaelic speakers in the 2011 Scottish census. …

“Says Sylvia Warnecke, a senior lecturer in languages at OU Scotland, … ‘In the academic world, the recognition of Scots as an important part of our linguistic and cultural landscape has existed for quite a while, but that’s not the case in other areas, like education, where Scots has always been considered “bad English,” or in popular culture, where it’s used to add humour.’

“Warnecke identifies a growing momentum, bolstered by the official recognition of the Scots language by the Scottish government and awareness of Scots as a language in its own right.

“Last year also featured the first Scots language awards, held in Glasgow in September, where the winner of the lifetime achievement award was the writer Sheena Blackhall, who was recently also named as the first Doric makar, or poet laureate.

“Doric, or north-east Scots, was forbidden in schools and dismissed as slang for decades, but is now a key part of Aberdeenshire council’s language strategy. The first language of the Sunset Song author Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Doric is taught in schools across the north-east. …

“Blackhall and Warnecke point to the impact of social media: at last year’s Edinburgh fringe, Twitter curated an exhibition celebrating the best of the #ScottishTwitter hashtag, which has become an online institution for those experimenting with the Scots language. …

“The range of written Scots has been transformed, says [Dr Michael Dempster, the director of the Scots Language Centre and Scots scriever at the National Library of Scotland], since the 70s and 80s, when writers would employ the language to portray a particular type of character. ‘That was an act of stereotype, while the narrative voice remained in standard English. Now people are writing in Scots throughout. They started picking it up from Irvine Welsh, although his writing was not in standard Scots, but now you have younger writers like Chris McQueer, who is consciously working in Scots and readers are really appreciative of that.’ …

“A team of Glasgow University researchers have been charting the richness and diversity of Scotland’s local dialects, launching their initial findings in the Scots Syntax Atlas last month.

“Encompassing ‘fit like’ of north-east Scotland, ‘gonnae no’ in Glasgow, and ‘I might can do’ from the Borders, the atlas offers a means of tracing the development of local speech patterns. For example, the influence of Irish immigration can be heard in Glaswegian Scots phrases such as ‘She’s after locking us out.’ ”

I have to say I love this sort of thing. And reading the article reminds me: I need Ian Rankin to come out with a new Scottish mystery soon. I want to know what ex-detective John Rebus is up to in retirement. And I need to hear those intriguing “Borders” phrases and the accent in my head.

Check out the Guardian article here.

img_4528-800x600-1

Photo: Filip Noubel
Tiles representing Uzbekistan’s huge cotton industry at the Paxtakor metro station. The  ornamentation of various subway stops portrays the accepted history of the moment.

As we struggle today with our nation’s history and painful, long-suppressed facts come to the fore, let’s turn off the television and think about Uzbekistan.

Back in the day, the Uzbeks thought it would be a beautiful thing to build something Stalin really wanted. They eventually completed a mighty subway system full of the kind of history their now discredited leader would have liked.

Filip Noubel reports at Global Voices, “For many years, it was strictly prohibited to photograph the ornate stations of the Tashkent metro in the Uzbek capital. The Soviet-era system had also been constructed with nuclear attack in mind, and could serve as a fallout shelter in wartime. But ever since that ban was lifted in early 2018, visitors from abroad have started to show heightened interest in Central Asia’s oldest subway system. And with good reason.

“Tashkent’s metro system is so much more than just a means of transportation. Over the decades of its existence, the design and names of the metro’s 29 ornate stations have changed to reflect the turbulent trends of Uzbekistan’s history. …

“Back in November 1920, electricity was a taste of the bold promises of progress to come; it embodied the new innovations now made accessible to the masses. Just 12 years later, the Soviet leadership pronounced yet another strategic and futuristic priority: the construction of the metropolitan, as Europe’s subway systems had come to be known in the second half of the 19th century. On May 25, 1932, the Sovnarkom, the then executive body of the Soviet government issued a decree …

‘The construction of the metropolitan must be considered a project of the utmost importance to the state, with its provision of timber, metal, cement, transportation, etc, and as a key priority in matters of superproductivity at the national level.’ …

“The development of the metro also marked a key turning point in the development of the Soviet economy: while the first five-year plan (1928–1932) emphasised heavy industrialisation, the second five-year plan focused on urbanisation. As a result, the metro became a major cultural symbol, present in films, children’s books, poetry and songs. It was hailed as testament to the success of Stalinism in official songs, such as this one from 1936:

” ‘We believed, we knew, That by digging a pit,
” ‘We would, Comrade Stalin, Make your plan come true.

” ‘They will describe it for centuries on, And not with just one pen
” ‘And they will tell the children, How they fought for the metro!’ …

“The people of Tashkent had to wait several decades for their metro, which was the first in remote and comparatively underdeveloped Soviet Central Asia. Planners faced several challenges: the Uzbek capital had experienced a crushing earthquake in 1966, which destroyed half the city. The city lacked trained engineers and metro workers. Uzbekistan’s long and scorching summers posed problems for ventilation. Which was precisely why the Soviet authorities had to demonstrate that they were up to the task.

“Mobilising human resources and special construction material from all across the Soviet Union, the first metro pits in Tashkent were dug in 1973. Just four years later, in a Stakhanovite spirit which set a record, the metro’s first line was opened in November 1977. The date was chosen to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Accordingly, as news footage from that day shows, all local politicians were present at the opening, where a message of congratulations from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was read out before the crowd. …

“As in other Soviet metro systems, each station of the Tashkent metro was assigned a particular political and cultural message to illustrate key messages of Soviet ideology.  …

“Of the 29 stations operating today (a third line was opened in 2001), five metro stations are particularly revealing in what they tell us about Uzbekistan’s changing narratives around national identity.

“[One] station is an emblematic example. Known as Friendship of the Peoples during the Soviet period, its previous name reflected Soviet ideology’s extensive attempts to emphasise its supposedly peaceful international role during the Cold War, in opposition to western imperialism. …

“[The Cotton Grower] station’s name symbolises the Uzbek economy’s everlasting dependency on cotton production. During the Soviet period, Moscow assigned each of the 15 Soviet republics a particular crop to produce en masse. This focus on cotton monoculture has been continued by all subsequent Uzbek governments at a high price for the country’s population. The cotton sector has used forced labor, including that of children.”

Forced child labor, huh? Bet they’re not proud of that now. Read more about the stations and (how the accepted history keeps changing) here.

Hat tip: Arts Journal.

0217-exoneration-lede

Photo: Ann Hermes/ Christian Science Monitor
Christopher Scott, left, and Steven Phillips, who spent a combined 37 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, were finally exonerated and are determined to pay it forward.

When I worked at the Fed magazine, I solicited a couple articles from the Innocence Project, which has a branch in New England. I continue to be impressed with the complicated, difficult work they do to exonerate men and women who’ve been wrongly convicted and sent to prison.

Today’s article is about two unjustly imprisoned men who got eventually got exonerated and decided to help others.

Henry Gass writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “The busiest P.O. box in North Texas may be in a drab, beige hallway in the post office of this Dallas suburb. [It’s] full of letters, mostly handwritten and postmarked from prisons across the country, addressed to what may be the most unusual detective agency in America. …

“The man who empties the box is Christopher Scott. Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, he dresses sharp, talks in the gritty patois of the South Dallas neighborhood he grew up in, and uses his bright smile sparingly.

“Under normal circumstances, he probably wouldn’t know Steven Phillips, and they most likely wouldn’t be best friends or partners in a detective agency. They’re from different backgrounds and different generations. While Mr. Scott navigated urban streets as a youth, Mr. Phillips grew up in the country, in the Ozarks. …

“Yet for all their differences, these two men – one white and one African American – have forged a common bond around a common purpose: trying to get people out of prison who should never have been there in the first place. Their Dallas-based nonprofit, House of Renewed Hope, also campaigns for criminal justice reforms and raises public awareness about how the system often fails.

“But it is the tantalizing prospect of uncovering new information that might, just might, free other innocent men that drives Mr. Scott and Mr. Phillips the most. They spend their days meeting clients in prison, tracking down and interviewing family members, friends, and potential eyewitnesses. They meet with prosecutors and activists, lawyers and experts. …

“The two men spent a combined 37 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, crimes for which they were eventually exonerated. That’s why they read every letter they receive. They know there are others like them behind bars. …

“ ‘We was wronged,’ [Scott] says. ‘If you don’t want to see this happen to a lot of other people, there’s things that we can do, because we’ve been a part of that system before.’ …

“One April night in 1997 he was riding around his neighborhood with a friend, Claude Simmons. On their way home, he noticed a heavy police presence in the area and a helicopter flying overhead. A familiar nervousness crept in. …

‘So I’m scared, but I’m not too scared,’ he recalls. ‘In my head I’m thinking the law, the justice system, is going to get it together and figure it out.’

“Instead, he was identified by the wife of the slain man as one of the attackers. She had been sexually assaulted and her husband shot dead during a home invasion. No physical evidence linked him to the crime, and her testimony was crucial in convicting Mr. Scott in a trial that lasted only four hours. An all-white jury sentenced him to life.

“In prison. … he read three books a week, including law tomes, looking for ways to prove his innocence. He compared notes and exchanged tips with other guys in Coffield filing innocence claims in courts.

“His break came when a group of law students at the University of Texas at Arlington discovered that two other men, one of whom was in prison for aggravated robbery, had committed the murder for which Mr. Scott had been convicted. The prisoner confessed, and in 2009 his accomplice was arrested in Houston.

“After Mr. Scott passed a six-hour polygraph test, he was exonerated; Mr. Simmons was also exonerated. The two men were brought before a judge in Dallas and declared innocent. …

“ ‘I was like, “Dude, I asked for this 13 years ago, and they didn’t give it to me.” But I was happy. I knew I was going free. It was over.’

“When Mr. Scott got out, Mr. Phillips was waiting for him. He was in the courtroom for the exoneration hearing. Afterward he introduced himself and told him to call if he ever needed anything. Mr. Scott was wary at first – with everything he’d been through, he says, he didn’t trust white people – but after a few days living with his mother he did call.

“Mr. Phillips let him stay at an apartment he owned, lent him some money, and even bought him a cheap car.

“A year later, after going to regular meetings with other exonerees, Mr. Scott set up the House of Renewed Hope using some of his compensation money from the state. … He asked Mr. Phillips and Johnnie Lindsey, another exoneree, to be co-founders. …

“He’s getting close with one case. House of Renewed Hope has teamed up with the Innocence Project of Texas to try to exonerate Leslie Davis, a man who served 28 years in prison for aggravated robbery. His conviction was based largely off testimony from a Dallas police officer who claimed he’d eavesdropped on Mr. Davis confessing to the crime while hiding in some bushes.

“Some other Dallas officers gave similar testimony around that time in the early- and mid-90s, earning the nickname the ‘Bushmen’ with some county prosecutors, and it later came to light that several of them had been disciplined internally for dishonesty.

“ ‘That’s something that should have been disclosed to the defense and was not,’ says Mr. Ware of the Innocence Project of Texas.

“Mr. Davis was released on parole several months ago, but he is still trying to clear his name. ‘It’s close,’ says Mr. Scott. ‘We just need a little more information.’ ” More here.

 

042920ddp20countrystore

Photo: Gareth Henderson
Messages of hope fill a window at the Bernard General Store in Barnard, Vermont.

When you’re feeling down, it’s a sign of health to look for comfort, which actually can be found in many places. Some people find it in phone calls to distant friends. Others find it in reading, music, exercise, or nature; in donating to people worse off or in watching children playing and laughing.

Gareth Henderson writes for the Christian Science Monitor that in Small Town America, some people are finding comfort at the general store.

“As COVID-19 restrictions were tightening in mid-March,” Henderson writes, “Jillian Bradley and Joe Minerva made a big decision: They pledged to keep the doors of the Barnard General Store open, no matter what.

“Now the Barnard store has a grocery home-delivery system supported by volunteers, and they also offer curbside pickup. But it’s been a long haul for the store, in this remote Vermont town of about 900 people, located a half-hour from the nearest grocery establishment.

‘Most days we are working 10 to 12 hours a day, but we are happy to do it for our community,’ Ms. Bradley says. …

“Country stores across the U.S., from New England to the South and the Midwest, are the heartbeat of their communities, often standing in the same spot for generations, growing up with the town.

“Eight years ago, the Barnard store closed for about a year but came roaring back after a community trust with hundreds of local members raised the funds to save the business. It reopened in 2013, with Ms. Bradley and Mr. Minerva as the new owners. The community simply would not let the store fail. …

“These Vermont stores have become essential food hubs. With most country store buildings closed during Vermont’s state of emergency – which was extended beyond May 15 – online ordering and curbside pickup has become the trend. Such is the case a 40-minute drive south at the South Woodstock Country Store, which has been running its curbside operation since early April. Around noon each Friday, co-owner Simi Johnston, donning her mask, puts out brown paper bags with grocery orders, each labeled with the customer’s name for pickup.

“For Ms. Johnston, the main focus is continuing to serve the community while keeping everyone safe. The store closed to the public in late March, two days before the state required restaurants to shut down.

“The entire operation is sanitized, and the store tries not to touch deliveries for 24 hours. The first week of curbside, the store saw 20 orders – which is nothing like being fully open.

“ ‘It’s a huge hit, for sure, but we’re definitely hoping there’ll be a lot of understanding from everyone around that,’ Ms. Johnston says. …

“ ‘The reason we run the country store is because we care about our community,’ she says. ‘Without it, South Woodstock is very different. Closing the doors of the country store, for myself and my staff, was surprisingly emotional.’

“With Vermont’s unemployment rate soaring to more than 20% during the pandemic, many stores are also finding a way to give back, even while they themselves struggle. In Craftsbury, which sits an hour south of the Canadian border in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, businesses have joined forces to set up a pop-up food pantry. The Craftsbury General Store put out a call for donations, and they came in fast.

“ ‘There’s been a lot of generosity in that realm,’ says co-owner Kit Basom.

“At the store, the doors are closed to the public, but they’re doing business seven days a week, filling online and phone orders for curbside pickup. The store’s owners have added a third person to help with phones, and everyone is on deck to be a ‘personal shopper.’ …

“The Craftsbury store has also added a ‘virtual tour’ on its website, so customers can browse the shelves digitally. The staff regularly updates an online list of items people can order in bulk – think flour, rice, or pasta.

“ ‘We’re moving a lot more product from our grocery section than we ever did before,’ Ms. Basom says.

“For many here, these stores are a lifeline holding the fabric of the community together. There is growing concern about the warmer months, from May to October, when these small village stores usually make the majority of their annual income. Though it’s been on their minds, Ms. Bradley from the Barnard store says she is confident they will find a way to make it.

“ ‘It’s sink or swim time and there is no way we will let ourselves sink,’ she says.”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

%d bloggers like this: