The Homestead may be wrapping up its 31st year in business and the store's building has stood on Tolland Green since 1810, but for owner Judy Shaffer, there's always something new to learn about running a small, country store.
"Sometimes I'll see a new product for the store, and I buy it, thinking everyone will love it, but it'll just sit there," Shaffer said of scouting out inventory for The Homestead, which specializes in antiques, gifts and candy. "I still get it wrong sometimes."
Perhaps Shaffer makes some mistakes, but there's no denying she knows how to keep her country store in business.
"You have to get to know your customers," Shaffer said of developing a rapport with her regulars. "The first few years in business are difficult because you don't know your customer base."
Shaffer entered the business world in 1981 with no retail experience. She left her job as a nurse to open The Homestead.
Little did she know that she was enrolling in a crash course in business. After some false starts, Shaffer figured out which craft shows she should attend each year and which product representatives could help her select stock that would sell. And of course, purchasing the inventory was a struggle in the days before she knew the salespeople.
"There's no such thing as credit when you're brand new. It's amazing I even made it," she remarked.
Shaffer also taught herself how to keep the store inventory, while her husband took a college course on how to file taxes for the small business on their own.
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And as can be expected, the centuries-old building needed some renovation.
"I had to sit with my coat on when I first opened," Shaffer recalled. She and her husband replaced the existing pot-bellied stove and had to repair both the roof and basement.
But Shaffer said that The Homestead's idiosyncrasies are what keeps it in business in today's age of super-sized convenience stores.
"People love the screen door. Most people don't have doors that slam anymore. It's funny what they get a kick out of," she said.
Keeping that in mind, Shaffer has made sure to keep tradition alive at The Homestead. The ever-popular candy counter, preserved since 1810, is full of old favorites like jelly nougats and Sugar Daddies, and every purchase goes home in a checkered bag, complete with a raffia bow.
"The bags don't say "The Homestead" on them, but people always come and tell me, 'I saw the bag and I knew where it came from,'" Shaffer said.
All of the small details come together to create a unique experience for The Homestead customers that they remember for years to come.
"Some of the kids grow up, come back home for the holidays and bring their own kids in to take pictures buying candy," Shaffer said. "The fact that they have such good memories of coming in here means a lot to me."
The Hometead has certainly marked its place as an important part of the local community, despite the rise and fall of the economy.
"I think it's very hard to have a small business like this," Shaffer said. "All the stores like me are gone. The sales representatives come in, and they're amazed I'm in business after 31 years."
Check out Tolland Patch's listing on The Homestead for its hours of operation.