At Hussey's General Store in Windsor, Maine, offbeat merchandise is a specialty. The sign out front says so, in no uncertain terms: "Guns, Wedding Gowns, Cold Beer."
At Mansfield General Store, it's not just basic groceries, takeout sandwiches and antiques. The Connecticut store has live music twice a week, including flamenco guitarists on Friday afternoons.
At Hastings Store in West Danville, Vt., co-owner Garey Larrabee is also the postmaster and cook, running a full-service post office and cooking up old-fashioned doughnuts for the regulars who come in to catch up on gossip and pick up mail, lingering near the wall of boxes with three-digit dial combination locks.
His wife, whose family has run the place for almost 100 years, is a justice of the peace. She sometimes marries people right there in the store.
Turns out, New England's general stores aren't as general as they used to be. With their creaky wooden floors, old-fashioned keepsakes and inventory that runs the gamut from snow shovels to wedding dresses, they rely on nostalgia and specialties to compete in a Walmart world.
"The best of these stores are the heart of their communities," said Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. "They're the places where people gather, connect with each other. "
Come fall foliage season, they're also big draws for visitors looking to take home a piece of New England.
"We sell the past," said Mary Anne Boyd, who runs the Brewster Store, a summer institution on Massachusetts' Cape Cod.
In Little Compton, R.I., Gray's General Store, which dates to about 1788, brings them in with an old-fashioned marble soda fountain, cigar and tobacco cases, and Rhode Island johnnycakes (corncakes). Its owners proudly call it the oldest operating general store in America, though others stake similar claims.
Whichever was first, Gray's is the real thing: It's one part country store and one part museum.
"Everything's just as it was 100 years ago," says owner Grayton Waite, 59, whose great-great-grandfather bought the place in 1879.
In Mansfield, Conn., the Mansfield General Store is a relative newcomer. Sisters Lisa Rich and Keleigh Shumbo, who opened it three years ago in a 19th century house, sell antiques, books and flowers in addition to groceries, and offer live music on Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
"We're just unique, we're different," Shumbo said. "We're down to earth."
Up on the Cape, the Brewster Store in Brewster, Mass. — a former church building that dates to 1852 and has been a store since 1866 — sells penny candy from wooden shelves and you-pick-it glass jars, and sometimes encourages young children to use pencil and paper to total their purchases.
A nickelodeon plays music; there's an ice cream operation, the Brewster Scoop, that's run from a cottage next door between Memorial Day and Labor Day; and the second floor has an area dedicated to military toys and World War II-era posters.
It also has a potbellied stove where folks gather for coffee and conversation.
"We feel like we're the owners of an institution, and we're safeguarding it," said Boyd, who has been running the place with husband George since 1986. "If Brewster were a human being, the store would be its heart."
The same goes for the Hastings Store, where one Hastings or another has been running things since 1913. Larrabee and wife Jane, who grew up in the wooden building, are the current owners.
"I'm the vice president of comings and goings," cracks Jane Larrabee, 63.
In neighboring New Hampshire, the Old Country Store and Museum in Moultonborough puts the emphasis on "old." It sells cookbooks, cookware, kitchen gadgets, wrought-iron hardware, clothing, Cabot cheese aged in a cellar downstairs, maple syrup made in an apartment upstairs and pickles from a porcelain barrel in the front.
"When you walk into the store, you'd swear you just walked back 150 years," says clerk Jonathan Hayden, who's married to one of the Holdens, the family that has owned it since 1973.
The store, which offers 7,000 products, is a popular destination for fall foliage bus tours.
Hussey's General Store, which dates to 1923, proudly boasts: "If we ain't got it, you don't need it."
They have everything from groceries and hardware to a second-floor bridal shop — next to the gun section — with gowns costing from $100 to $900.
"We have people come in, and they want to buy a gun and buy a wedding gown," said Kristen Austin, 26, whose great-grandparents founded the place. "Sometimes, they want to go out and take a picture of them in a wedding gown with a gun. Some people are actually looking for that shotgun wedding kind of thing."