Things Are Looking Up At Dan & Whit's in Norwich

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Sometimes, we look to the sky to ask big questions about our existence. Inside Dan & Whit’s General Store in downtown Norwich, Vermont, we look up to pose different sorts of queries: Who was Linda and why does she have a coffee corner? Why is a wine box inscribed with black magic marker saying, “Start Aug 8 2003 10:30am end Oct 6-03” up on top of that shelf in the hardware department?

How long has that giant Morton Salt container been hanging from the ceiling? “At least as long as I’ve been alive,” says one store source. There’s a dispenser sort of contraption that holds a roll of plastic six-pack rings. Does it have a technical name? Where do they order replacements rolls and how often do they run out?
Who thought it would be a good idea to bequeath a bit of nature to the store in the form of a single moose antler? And why is it up high, a bit hidden, but still in plain sight? You can ask, and people will assuredly answer. Maybe, though, it’s best to let your imagination run wild.
Our eyes depart the shelves to find the items that are not for sale, but that, in some way, form the backbone of the general store, giving it unique flavor and character. A baseball trophy’s pedestal is draped in cobwebs, but the shine of its bat stands as an ongoing testament to athletic success. Elsewhere, there is a quote from a local celebrity, deeming the very building where you stand “the most useful store in the world.” A sign made out of letters cut from print media, like an old-fashioned ransom note, says “Bars” with two arrows pointing in a single direction.
History buffs the world over know that it is important to look everywhere for signs of what has come before us. In the store, the same holds true. Placed on high are artifacts for anyone to interpret or study: copies of the Congressional Record; awards; holiday cards from seasons past; photos of a family and a store from a time when the owners wore neckties to work; a sacred yardstick from the Merrill store, whose original sign can be found -- you guessed it -- up high outside. If you remember the majestic maple tree that used to grace the center of the Norwich Green many moons ago, when the split rail fence was painted white and Girard Way didn’t exist, looking up at Dan & Whit’s offers you a nice trip down Memory Lane.

Of course, there are commercial treasures up there, too. If you wear glasses, have 79 cents in your pocket, and the courage to look up, you can get a Frame-Lock that will “Stop Eyeglass Slipping,” solving one of the great scourges of the 21st century for under a buck. Ice fishermen wanting to solve a different kind of problem will find comfort in the Heat-a-Seat hanging from a hook like an unexpected pinata. The sophisticated customer knows to look in the rafters for ladders or brooms or canoe paddles or snow rakes or 224 ½ gallon milk jugs. Savvy regulars look above the freezers for Swift Sweeps and above the biscotti for electric wine openers. Really, where else would they be?

Often, you can spot things that have a special kind of Upper Valley appeal to them. There’s a sign outside warning that there is NO ROLLERBLADING OR SKATEBOARDING. But the thing you notice, when you finally spot the sign, is that it is nowhere near where any teenager’s eye would ever go. It’s way up high, away from all the visual traffic that attracts that demographic. So, technically, those activities are prohibited. The manner in which the warning is posted, however, seems to say that no one is really worried about it, and it’s not a problem that one needs to be warned against anyway. After all, Upper Valley people tend to follow the rules, even when they aren’t posted in public.

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If you look closely, there is humor, too. As you complete your shopping, you glance in a top corner where a small sign hangs, with language going perpendicular to the floor.

It says, “Don’t question your wife’s judgement. Look who she married.”

So what’s the upshot? In the store, on the road, in your life, look up, people, look up.

Note: This is the first in a series of stories about Dan and Whit’s General Store to give Upper Valley residents a flavor of the history, practices, and unique characteristics of this Norwich institution.

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