HENNIKER, N.H. -- For the midmorning coffee break, canoe maker Tom Seavey leaves his shop to join some friends at the century-old Henniker Pharmacy. He finds his seat at the oak-and-marble lunch counter, and he sips and he chats, savoring the daily bull session with his fellow townsfolk.
But lately Seavey and his friends worry their ritual might soon come to an end. They've been awaiting a judge's ruling that might clear the way for the Rite Aid Corp. to build a big, modern drugstore up the road.
"It's kind of like the threat of the rat race breathing down your neck," says Seavey, who set down roots in Henniker two decades ago. He shakes his head and says Rite Aid's buying-power and lower prices hold no lure for him. "You go killing the gathering spot, it's not worth it to me to save 18 cents on a pack of raisins. Big deal."
In big cities and sprawling suburbs, construction of a chain drugstore wouldn't be worth a shrug. But some people in Henniker, home to 4,100, say a new store here would drive the older pharmacy out of business and would rob their New Hampshire town of a large measure of its charm.
Rite Aid's interest prompted some residents to organize against what they saw as an arrogant corporation's invasion. Bumper stickers and lawn signs sprouted: "Rite Aid/Wrong Town."
Rite Aid says that the criticism is unfair and that its surveys show a quiet majority of residents favor its plan. Last month, it went to court to appeal the town planning board's rejection of its store design. Last week, both sides were anxiously awaiting a decision on Rite Aid's appeal.
Underlying the struggle between town and corporation is a clash between principles held dearly in this famously conservative state.
Who holds the trump card when the New Hampshire tradition of government at its most grass roots is played against an individual's property rights?
J. Albert Norton, a longtime resident who owns the wooded, commercially zoned property where the Rite Aid would be built, wants to finance his retirement by selling the land to the company.
Norton, a 69-year-old court security officer and former sheriff's deputy, says the most vocal opponents to the plan are neighbors who want no development at all on his property.
"They want to look at the trees I pay $4,600 a year in taxes on," he says angrily.
But Jack Bopp, chairman of an ad hoc committee fighting the Rite Aid proposal, says that two decades ago the town adopted zoning laws so it could determine its destiny -- and not have its fate dictated by outside forces such as Rite Aid.
"It was the good of the Henniker community vs. another pushpin on the map for the Rite Aid Corp. of Harrisburg, Pa.," he says of the fight. "A duly elected town body decided that that particular proposal did not meet the rules."
Betsy Davis, a resident since 1972, calls the debate "an awkward situation." She's not eager for chain stores in her town, but she sympathizes with the property owner and the drugstore chain.
After all, she says, "Our license plates say 'Live Free or Die.' "
As national retail corporations seek to expand, they are frequently finding resistance on their new frontiers. Chains as large as Wal-Mart -- and as seemingly innocuous as Talbots, the women's clothier -- have met opposition as they've set out to tap new markets near highway interchanges and in venerable shopping districts.
The battle in Henniker differs from many protests against large, so-called "big-box" retail stores, which often seek to set up shop on the outskirts of a town or in areas already served by national chains. Henniker, a hamlet nestled in a rocky New England forest, has never had a chain store. Its bed-and-breakfast inns trade on the town's old-time ambience.
On the lot where the Rite Aid would be built, a sign greets drivers with the words, "Welcome to Henniker, the Only One on Earth." Longtime residents say no one has ever found another town with the same name.
Seventeen miles west of Concord, the state capital, Henniker is so small that its one traffic light is just a flashing signal. Tucked amid pine-covered hills, the town is home to New England College; many residents came to the small school and never left town.
It wasn't too many years ago, some recall, that the town magistrate still accepted payments of fines while pumping gas at his service station. And though many say that some small-town features have faded in the past 15 years, Henniker remains a place where one might see a moose ambling across a neighbor's yard.
In the heart of all this is the 109-year-old Henniker Pharmacy, a three-story clapboard building at the town's main intersection.
Pharmacy owner Joe Clement began working there as a boy and bought the store in 1965. It was remodeled a few years ago but still sports old-fashioned wood beams and a pressed tin ceiling.
Inviting as the old drugstore is, some residents who support Rite Aid's proposal wonder why their neighbors should go out of their way to block another pharmacy from competing against Clement. Elaine Daniels, a Henniker resident for 17 years, says she and most of her friends are eager to find bargains at a Rite Aid in Henniker.
"I would just love to see them come here so we would have a choice of places to shop," she says, adding that the store would provide the town with sorely needed tax revenue.
Growth can create problems
At a time when the evolving managed care industry is changing the face of the drugstore business, Rite Aid is in the midst of an aggressive expansion campaign. With 4,000 stores in 30 states, Rite Aid is one of the country's largest drugstore chains.
But growth can create problems for even the most apparently benign retailers. Some areas fear that an infusion of chain stores can replace local atmosphere with a bland, anywhere feel.
Consider: In 1996, residents of a town near New York City complained that a proposed Starbucks coffee shop would mar a commercial district noted for its diverse, family-owned businesses.
That same year, residents of one Connecticut town fought, unsuccessfully, the arrival of a Talbots store, arguing that it might bring a wave of chain outlets to their quaint village green.
In Henniker, Rite Aid began seeking approval for a store in 1996 and set its sights on commercially zoned land close to a highway interchange.
Some residents worried that the Rite Aid might signal a turn toward faceless stores. Worse, they say, was that the store FTC would be at the main entrance into Henniker and, therefore, the first impression visitors had of the 230-year-old town.
Rite Aid officials acknowledge that they goofed in initially proposing their block-like store model for Henniker. The company redesigned and reduced the size of the proposed building, adding roof gables and wood trim, and including touches such as split-rail fencing.
Suzanne Mead, vice president for public affairs for Rite Aid, says the company has complied with unique design standards in several New England communities.
Seeking support for its plan, Rite Aid talked of building a "neighborhood drugstore" that would employ residents and pump millions of dollars into the local and state economies.
Unimpressed, some Henniker residents formed "The Only Henniker on Earth Committee." A petition with 1,200 signatures was presented and $20,000 was raised to fight Rite Aid, says Bopp, the committee chairman.
After a series of raucous meetings, the Henniker planning board narrowly voted to reject the plan.
Mead describes the hearings as "an interesting circus of events" orchestrated to give opponents the chance to vent against the company and "perpetuate the David vs. Goliath myth." Daniel P. Luker, a Concord attorney representing Rite Aid in the case, says the board's reasoning behind its decision was "contrived."
The company argued its case in a trial last month in Merrimack County Superior Court. The judge could uphold the planning board's decision, order that the board revisit the issue or order that the plan be approved.
Bopp says the town's very soul is at stake. "If all the stores start looking the same, you lose the sense of place," he said. "Then it's not the only Henniker on Earth anymore."
Pub Date: 5/18/98