Where the past is ever in stock
By KATE BOLICK
THE NEW YORK TIMES | December 16,2013
AP FILE PHOTO
Shoppers pick out candies at the Vermont Country Store in Weston.
For the last year I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to visit the Vermont Country Store’s flagship, in Weston. Initially I chalked up my repeated failure to logistics; there was simply never a good time to break away from the city for a weekend.
The company’s folksy catalog has been a staple of my mailbox for possibly my entire life, although it took a mid-aughts job in Times Square, replete with screeching subway commute and high heels, for me to truly appreciate its countrified appeal.
Flipping through its frumpy, matte pages, so unlike those of its glossy retail cousins, has the soothing effect of donning a flannel Lanz Playful Kittens Gown for Moms and Daughters Alike ($34.95 to $59.95, sizes toddler to 3X) and curling up with a Santa Winking Mug ($19.95 for a set of two) of warm Ovaltine ($9.95). I’m transported to the lace curtains and plaid sofa cushions of my New England childhood, not excluding the kitchen “junk drawer,” where every last thingamabob, no matter how ingenious, invariably met its fate. (A poor relation to the box labeled String Too Short to Be Saved that poet Donald Hall found in his grandparents’ New Hampshire attic and subsequently titled a book after.)
Here in this age of contrived “heritage” brands like Hendrick’s Gin (b. 1999) and Madewell (b. 1937, d. 1989, resurrected 2006), these self-titled Purveyors of the Practical and Hard-to-Find own authenticity like few others. In 1897, Gardner Lyman Orton, a 12th-generation American, opened a general store in Calais, Vt., the same year his son, Vrest, was born. In 1945, after serving in World War II, graduating from Harvard, working in New York publishing and writing speeches for the Pentagon, Vrest Orton returned to Vermont, where he and his wife, Ellen, also a native, set up a printing press in their garage and entered the mail-order business.
Their inaugural catalog, 24 pages of 36 “durable, practical” products, went out to the people on their Christmas card list. The next year the Ortons bought an 1827 building (formerly a country inn) on Main Street in Weston; today the entire village (pop. 566) is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1967 they opened a second store in Rockingham, about an hour southeast.
Vrest Orton died in 1986; Ellen Orton in 2010. Today the enterprise is owned and run by their son Lyman and his sons Cabot, Gardner and Eliot — who, if I’m not mistaken, occasionally stands in as a model. At least I think that’s Eliot in a pair of Hunter Green Men’s Jersey Knit 100 percent Cotton Ski Pajamas ($34.95).
The catalog has 100-odd pages of 1,000-odd products, an any-era-goes museum of Yankee consumerism holding everything from personal-remedy potions with names like Old Goat and Vim & Vigor to slip-on ice cleats for boots or sneakers to flannel any way you like it. Who doesn’t need an Adjustable Nail Polish Holder — Helps You Paint Your Nails With Ease ($9.95)? Who doesn’t want to chomp his way through a tin of Boston’s beloved Necco Wafers ($11.95), a sack of Baltimore’s Goetze’s Caramel Creams ($14.95), a box of freshly made Vermont Cider Doughnuts ($21.95 for 12)?
The manufacturing team has resuscitated more than a few long-gone items, now sold as Vermont Country Store exclusives. Tangee Lipstick ($14.95), which changes color to complement your skin tone, was gracing pouts in 1928, went out of production in the 1960s and came back from the dead in 2002. From the 1960s: the Original Mood-Changing Lipstick Is Back at Your Request ($19.95 for a set of six). Remember Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific ($14.95) shampoo? Now your hair can smell like the 1970s.
It’s a trip down memory lane so masterfully paved I don’t even care whose memories I’m remembering. I get as much pleasure reading the blessedly straightforward, jargon-free copy as I do the use of hand-drawn illustrations to depict, for instance, a psoriasis-ravaged forearm before and after an application of Medicated Coal Tar Ointment ($19.95). Surely by merely exposing myself to such thrifty practicality I’m saving money.
Last March, for a surf vacation to Costa Rica, I needed a sturdy swimsuit that could withstand repeated wipeouts without riding up in unseemly places. I had a hunch the store’s grandmotherly offerings would deliver in ways trendy retro cuts only appear to. In the spirit of contemporaneity (and travel-panic-induced expediency), I went to its website, typed in “swimsuit” and was met with a Rockettes line of maximum seat coverage.
I chose the Shirred Front Swimsuit ($74.95) with “modest girl-leg styling” and “added curve appeal” in a fetching floral pattern that reminded me of something Elizabeth Taylor may have worn. She would have definitely worn the Cotton Mediterranean Mood Lounger ($39.95), a voluminous cotton chambray caftan with blue detailing, and so into my online shopping bag both went. As did the snowy cotton lawn Victorian One-Piece PJs ($49.95), a cross between a sleeveless jumper and pantaloons with pockets (to “keep lace hankies close at hand,” a touch more Elizabeth Barrett Browning than Elizabeth Taylor) I had long forbidden myself to buy but could no longer resist. In for a penny, in for a pound! (All purchases are guaranteed forever.)
When the package arrived, there was a tag on the swimsuit that read, “We know you’ve still got it and we’re going to help you flaunt it!”
It was after this spree I hatched the plan to go north to the source. It’s said that 1880s button-up ladies’ shoes hang from the rafters. I would plunge my hands into wooden barrels brimming with foil-wrapped penny candies, sit on the front stoop sipping hot cider, spritz my wrists with Evening in Paris Eau de Parfum ($49.00), touted in the 1950s as “the fragrance more women wear than any other in the world.”
But after even leaf-peeping season couldn’t lure me away from Brooklyn, it became clear that I didn’t actually want to make the pilgrimage.
In her new book “The Power of Glamour,” Virginia Postrel distills glamour into three essential elements: the promise of escape, grace and mystery. She also explains that one reason it continually reappears in new forms is that “the process of projection, yearning, and pursuit is itself pleasurable.” She cites sociologist Colin Campbell’s theory of a “modern, self-illusory hedonism” that is less about the sensation-seeking of food, drink and sex than it is the emotional pleasure derived from anticipating new experiences.
That is, by actually visiting the Vermont Country Store, I would ruin its promise of escape. I’d much rather stay in the city and flip through the catalog, dreaming of a quiet, snowy place where time never stops, and wondering if I should get the Mohair-Blend Ear Warmer Wool Bonnet ($15.95) in blue, black or violet.