A local store struggles to maintain staffing during the Covid pandemic and is faced with the possibility of having to shutter for good. The owner throws a Hail Mary pass and puts out a call for help to the community – would residents and customers be willing to take a weekly shift? And in a resolution fit for a Christmas movie, many people answered the call. The store is saved.
Of course, this isn’t a Hallmark movie, and it isn’t any local store. It’s the true story of how Dan & Whit’s stayed in business despite losing most of its staff due to the exigencies of a global pandemic.
It’s a heartwarming tale and one that we all needed to hear. And as such, everyone has had a crack at it. VPR did a piece on it. Steve Hartman came out with cameras and lights and interviewed co-owner Dan Fraser for his CBS Evening News segment On the Road. Robert Reich, political commentator, and former Secretary of Labor wrote a column on it. Even the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association featured an account on their blog.
But Dan & Whit’s belongs to Norwich. The struggle to staff the store is Norwich’s struggle. Those two dozen relief employees are Norwich. The problem happened to Norwich, and the solution was found in Norwich. The story belongs to Norwich.
And so, it is only fitting for the Norwich Times to show you the people who made it possible for Dan & Whit’s to keep their doors open. Why did they do it? What is it about Dan & Whit’s that motivated so many people to step up and help?
Peggy Morin, 74, had two careers prior to her stint at Dan & Whit’s. After practicing as an attorney for 20 years, Peggy earned her MFA in drama and joined the theater faculty at SUNY Stony Brook. Now retired, Peggy heard from a friend about Dan’s letter to the Norwich Listserv. She had “enjoyed the institution for many, many years. And I’m also aware of the fact that Dan & Whit’s does a great deal for its community.” She thought, “I can certainly spare some hours.” Telling the story, she said with a laugh, “Not that I would be the greatest sandwich maker in the world.”
But the beauty of Dan’s proposal is the flexibility he offers. The first thing he asks his relief workers is, “what do you want to do?” The workers are assigned to jobs and tasks that suit them best. In Peggy’s case, that meant organizing clothing. “Most costume people are familiar with the strategies about how to organize a large costume collection. It’s a little bit like a library system. You need, say, a Captain Hook… in a size 20.” You need to figure out how to set it up so customers can easily find things. “It means that costume people have a pretty good sense about complicated organization of clothing pieces.” Contrast that with sorting t-shirts in the stock room. “There’s nothing complicated about what we’re doing here. I’m not trying to pretend this is rocket science. I’m just trying to set it up so that they can come back here and grab things in five seconds.”
Why is it important to Peggy not to let Dan & Whit’s close? “In addition to the public service that Dan & Whit’s has exhibited so much through the years, I think for some people it’s a reminder that life does not need to be so complicated. The motto, ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t need it’ is probably not exactly true. I think the idea that you can find everything under one roof, the way you could in your grandparents’ day, probably has a little nostalgia connected with it as well as some truth.” For someone who spent many years in New York, Norwich has something special. “I love a smaller community kind of life, with the degree of accountability that exists. Not that I know all my neighbors, but I live in a wonderful neighborhood with neighbors who look out after each other. There’s something, I think, about the nostalgia for life in a rural community that people want to keep going. And Dan is such a smart proprietor too. He’s sensitive to the needs and always looking for ways to make it a nice place for people to drop in to find what they need. I mean, it would be sad if we only had Wal-Marts left, wouldn’t it?”
Thirty-five-year-old Maggie Ronan moved to the Upper Valley a year and a half ago to be closer to family. She is pursuing a graduate degree in computer science at Northeastern University and, with all the classes being remote these days, needed something that would get her out of the house. When she saw Dan’s letter, she was impressed with its innovative approach, and it appealed to “some values I have around groups of people working together as a community. Partly, it’s selfish. I go to Dan & Whit’s all the time as a customer, and I didn’t want it to close. And the idea of people who lived nearby getting more involved was interesting. And for me, it really worked out because it got me out of the house and interacting with people in real life, since I spend so much time on the computer.”
Dianne Miller, 68, a registered nurse and project manager for regional development at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, said of answering Dan’s plea, “He made it so welcoming. He asked people what you would like to do, instead of telling you what you were going to do,” she said. “I told him I don’t want to run the cash register, but I’m fairly good at merchandising. It was Halloween, so getting all that stuff out and then putting that away and getting out the Christmas stuff. It’s quite a bit of work – lots of boxes to unpack, up and down ladders, reaching higher shelves, lifting, cleaning.” Dianne put up a Christmas tree to help display and sell Christmas ornaments. She pointed out that with staffing so restricted, the regular employees “don’t have time for that kind of stuff. So, if you can do something that is extra, that’s really appreciated.”
What is it about Dan & Whit’s that brought so many people forward when Dan made his request? “Dan & Whit’s is so much more than just a general store. It really is integral to the community. They have done so much for the community that it is so natural to want to help them. They are a place where people will gather, meet. You can say to somebody, leave it at Dan & Whit’s, and I’ll pick it up later. During Covid, they were out there doing email orders, bagging them, delivering them. They just really stepped up.”
Matt Merrens, 81, a retired research psychologist with Dartmouth Medical School, took the approach that several others took. He answered Dan’s request by offering to volunteer; he didn’t need the money he would earn from the job.When Matt had heard about the situation, “I was startled by it. I thought, this institution just can’t close.” Of course, driving around, he could see “every place was looking for workers, but for it to happen to Dan & Whit’s just struck me.” Because Dan & Whit’s is a business, not a nonprofit, Dan could not accept the offers to work for free. Matt agreed to help at the store on the condition that his wages be donated. “He gives me a check, and I endorse it to the Haven, and everything’s good.”
Matt continued, “I gotta tell you something he does. We punch in, punch out, and about once a week, he writes you a little, almost, love note – a little skinny piece of paper in which he thanks you for being there. Tells me I’m doing well and all kinds of praise. It’s just a darling little thing that he does for all of us. He’s a real gem.”
What’s so important about Dan & Whit’s? “Well, it’s a store that’s been here a long time. Working there, I see the same people every morning, pick up a coffee, pick up a newspaper. In the month I’ve been there, I’ve gotten to know some of these people. It’s just the heart and soul of the community in a lot of ways. If it closed, it would be a big loss. It’s old, it’s got three wood furnaces that heat the place. It’s been there forever; the floors are beaten down. It’s got a certain feeling about it… I don’t know. I’ve always felt that way about the store. It has a feeling about it that I don’t think the community wants to lose at all. I want to say to you, I think I’m getting a lot out of this personally, as well as helping the store and the community. I didn’t expect that. When I signed up, I didn’t think I’d feel personally benefited by it. And I do. I do.”
Nancy Tehan, 70, a registered nurse, has been going to Dan & Whit’s ever since she moved to the Upper Valley in 1978. When she heard about the staffing issue, Nancy knew it was important to help the community. “Dan & Whit’s is not only the heartbeat of the community – and I know you’ve heard that before – but it’s a place where I see so many wonderful things going on. In years past, there were people who couldn’t afford food, and there was a bartering system. Dan & Whit’s has always taken care of their neighbors. It’s always been about them taking care of the community, and I just thought it was time for… me, at least, to pitch in and take care of our Dan & Whit’s.”
Betsy Maislen, 68, brings a unique perspective to her work at Dan & Whit’s. A retired nurse practitioner, she worked in cardiothoracic surgery at DHMC for years. As a relief worker at Dan & Whit’s, she learned to work the cash register and the gas pumps. And when lines are long, and maybe patience is wearing thin, Betsy takes it all in stride. In one of his weekly notes to her, Dan mentioned that she doesn’t seem to get flustered by much. But compared to cardiothoracic surgery, grocery shopping is not something to get upset about. “My decisions [at the hospital] were sometimes very much life-and-death. But if someone has to wait an extra two minutes in line to get their groceries checked out – nobody’s gonna die.”
Asked why it’s important to keep Dan & Whit’s running, Betsy said, “I could not imagine the town of Norwich without Dan & Whit’s. Could not imagine it. It’s like a beehive down there, with people coming and going all the time. It’s the center of our town. I thought, well, I’ll do my part. Also, I felt I’ve never been able to do anything for Dan. At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed like he was working 24/7 to make sure everybody in town was safe. I don’t think I can think of another single individual who has done more for our community. This is one thing I could do for him. And I was happy to do that.”
For Jan Scheiner, 60, a clinical psychologist who has lived in Norwich since 1998, the decision to take a shift at Dan & Whit’s came easily. The pandemic has brought a lot of stress and grief, as every person on this planet knows. In her work, Jan sees firsthand the struggles people are going through. It can be a challenge to let all that stress go at the end of the day. She hoped that working at Dan & Whit’s would give her respite. And it did. “Scanning groceries is very pure. Very concrete.”
Jan describes Norwich as an “effective community,” something that she focuses on a lot in her work. “Effective communities have a willingness to pull together to solve problems.” Jan also noted that Dan & Whit’s has enjoyed the benefit of serving a population that was able to answer Dan’s call. “You have to recognize the privilege in this solution,” she said, “the privilege of time and money” that allowed people to step up and take a job for which they didn’t need the income.
In talking with some of the people who came to work at the store when Dan sent out his plea, it becomes clear what an idea factory Dan Fraser is. His background in special education for the Norwich school informs his approach. He has that creativity toward problem-solving, the understanding and compassion for humanity, and the ability to meet people where they are. As Jan said, “he walks the walk. And it’s hard to say no when he asks.”