Old Farmer's Almanac is now a store

July 05, 2004|By KEVIN COWHERD

IF YOU HAVE ANY doubt, on this Fourth of July weekend, that this is a great country, the following bulletin should pretty much take care of that.

Here it is: The Old Farmer's Almanac, that most American of icons, has now morphed into another most American of icons -- a retail outlet.

I know, I know ... is nothing sacred?

What's next: the Reader's Digest Superstore?

National Geographic 'n' Things?


Yet the fact is that just the second Old Farmer's Almanac General Store in the country just opened on the top floor of the White Marsh Mall, right across from Sunglass Hut and Cinnabon.

In terms of hipness and dazzle, this is somewhat like seating Sandra Day O'Connor across from J. Lo and Britney Spears.

Because like its namesake publication -- first rolled out in 1792 and perhaps best known for its long-range weather forecasts -- the Old Farmer's Almanac General Store trades shamelessly in nostalgia and a way of life that largely disappeared around the same time as the musket.

"It's a celebration of country life, and small-town life," Old Farmer's Almanac group publisher John Pierce says of the new outlet, which opened a week ago.

If you're curious about the inventory, think old-time general store: decorative tin coffee pots and canisters of the "primitive" style, old-fashioned soaps and liniments, canned goods such as pickled asparagus, bulk candies like licorice wheels and malted milk balls and Mary Janes, Raggedy Ann dolls, electric lamps that resemble the oil lamps of old.

"People will come in," says store general manager Pam Antonelli, "and say, `Wow, I haven't seen that since I was a kid!'"

Or maybe since Lincoln was a kid.

Heck, the floorboards even creak underfoot like an old general store -- well, an old general store with 2,600 square feet of floor space, state-of-the-art lighting, central air-conditioning and a killer view of the food court.

You would think -- OK, I would think -- that the demographic attracted to such a store might skew slightly, um, older.

As in time-to-turn-in-the-driver's-license older.

But Antonelli says that hasn't been the case.

Indeed, at 10:30 on a recent weekday morning, there were some 20 customers browsing through the aisles, and only about three of them looked old enough to flash an AARP card at a motel clerk.

"We were pleasantly surprised at all the young traffic in here," Antonelli says. "There are lots of people decorating their homes in this style. And these are young people in their 20s."

Well, OK.

But does a Colonial flag place mat even go with a 60-inch plasma TV?

And will someone who whips out a Nokia 6225 picture phone every five seconds and downloads videos from the Saturn probe on a Dell Latitude laptop really get bowled over by a vegetable peeler like grandma used to use?

I guess time will tell.

Yankee Candle, the parent company, opened its first Old Farmer's Almanac General Store in Connecticut in 2001, a store Pierce described as "extremely successful."

The third store will open in Georgia late this summer.

Pierce, talking on the phone from the company's headquarters in Dublin, N.H. (he makes the town sound so small it's a wonder it even has phone service), said research indicated that reader loyalty to the Old Farmer's Almanac would translate into consumer loyalty at the cash register.

"People have a feeling that they know [the Almanac] personally," he said. "They'll say: `My mother used to plant her garden using [tips] from the Almanac' or `My grandfather kept [the Almanac] in a tool shed.'

"[The store] re-creates, in three dimensions, many of the aspects of the Almanac itself."

Whether this latest version of Yankee capitalism will take off here in Maryland is anybody's guess. A year or two from now, this could be 2,600 square feet of another Hair Cuttery or Eddie Bauer.

But here's a reassuring footnote.

When I asked Antonelli what her best-selling item was so far, she took me to a front corner of the store and showed me something called Redneck Wind Chimes.

These were old beer and bean cans strung together with rope and painted red and blue.

They sell for $16.99. And they're flying off the shelves faster than flak jackets in Baghdad.

You hear that and you think: How can this store miss?

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