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Minding the store. A century later, the Gillinghams are still plying their trade

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OUT back, David Chestnut is loading groceries into a Ford Bronco. ``About 15'' deliveries today, he explains, as he hefts the cardboard boxes full of eggs and bread and produce.

Mr. Chestnut, a burly, good-natured former merchantmarine sailor who grew up in Brooklyn, is carrying on a tradition in this central Vermont village. F. H. Gillingham & Sons, the town's 100-year-old general store, has always delivered its goods to elderly residents and others who prefer the convenience of doorstep service.

Clara Richardson, who worked as a cashier and bookkeeper in the store for 60 years, remembers when Calvin Coolidge, who was born nearby in Plymouth, Vt., would amble in. Despite his sometimes sour public visage, Mr. Coolidge was ``as jolly and nice as could be,'' says Miss Richardson.

Then there was poet Robert Frost, a resident of Ripton, another town in the vicinity. He, too, was a pleasant customer, she says, who ``always had a joke.''

Homespun memories, door-to-door delivery, a cardless in-house charging system, worn floorboards, by-the-handful wooden nail bins -- these touches give Gillingham's a down-home feel, even in the midst of gourmet cheeses, French cooking implements, and other products the store's shrewd founder, F. H. himself, wouldn't have dreamed of.

The venerable establishment has had to keep pace with Woodstock, a town of about 2,000 that has changed markedly over the last couple of decades, according to longtime residents.

Vacationers and second-home seekers have come to love the place, with its blend of the quaint and the chic. Accordingly, the community has had to get used to a rainbow of out-of-state license plates, traffic snarls, boutiques of every name and nature, and, occasionally, opinionated newcomers.

Down the main street a ways from the store lives Elizabeth Gillingham, the wife of Warren Gillingham, one of the two sons of the founder. Chatting on the back porch of her pleasant, green-shuttered home, she comments that the family store is ``more or less'' as it ever was.

``The natives, like us, we like to keep with the old traditions.''

By contrast, the trendy little shops along main street seem to come and go in the blink of an eye, observes Mrs. Gillingham. ``They'll be here six months or so and then they're gone, and we don't even know who was running it,'' she says.


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