By Mike Donoghue
When the Hinesburg General Store went on the market 14 years ago, Anne Frost said it seemed like a good idea to buy the popular business on Vermont 116.
She and her husband, Rob Frost, own and operate Vermont Well & Pump across the street. The convenience store would be something they could help oversee as it continued to provide groceries, a deli, beer, wine, gasoline, diesel, propane, and more for the area.
Everything was going well until about a year ago. Now the landmark has shut its doors for good, the victim of a series of crimes, police said.
Hinesburg Community Police say they are in the middle of a wide-ranging criminal investigation that include allegations of credit card fraud, embezzlement, thefts, drug sales and more. It could be hundreds of dollars a week that were lost, Officer Anthony Cambridge said.
No arrests had been made as of Tuesday, police said.
“The store was never a dream of mine,” Frost admitted in an interview.
Yet there was some attraction to obtaining the business on Route 116 about a half-mile from the Starksboro town line. Besides serving town residents for decades, Hinesburg General attracted drivers headed to or from Addison County or using Hollow Road as a connection between Huntington and Richmond.
“We invested a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears,” she said. There were plenty of good times and many friends made.
That was not enough in the end. Hiring good people also was required.
“We learned it needed far more oversight. None of us had background in it,” Frost said about operating a local store.
Now Frost hopes others can learn from some mistakes that were made.
She also fears convenience store chains may soon push out locally owned establishments.
“The mom-and-pop stores are going to be a thing of the past. It is difficult for stores to flourish. There will be the Jolleys, the Jiffy Marts, and the Maplefields,” she said about three major chains operating across Vermont.
Hinesburg Community Police say they got involved May 17 when a woman filed a complaint that her credit card had been used to try to make some major purchases in South Burlington.
The victim maintained she had last used her credit card at the Hinesburg General Store and it was never returned to her, Cambridge said.
“She insisted that an employee was involved,” Cambridge said.
Police talked with the owners of the Hinesburg General Store; they reported they were having some issues and income had “significantly decreased since last summer,” Cambridge said. “They didn’t understand where it was going.”
At about that time, Frost said, she received a text message with a tip to look into the store’s operation.
Cambridge said police have interviewed about a half-dozen witnesses along with the store owners.
He said a clearer picture is coming into focus. He said more cigarettes were coming into the store than were being sold. Beer was going out the back door of the store, he said.
“There were inconsistencies with lottery tickets sold and cashed in,” Cambridge said.
The Vermont Lottery Commission also is working with the store to try to determine a proper accounting, Frost said.
At least one gasoline pump was left on some nights for after-hours fill-ups by either employees or customers, Cambridge said.
The store, about 4 miles south of the Hinesburg Community Police Station, is in a rural section with few people around to notice late-night activities at the fuel pumps.
The large parking lot sits empty now; the store shut down completely June 4. The Citgo pumps have no customers pulling up.
A simple handwritten message “Store Closed” is printed on white pieces of paper posted on both the entrance and exit doors. The business is locked. Foods products and other items remain inside the store.
It is now a 4-mile trip from Hinesburg General to get into the center of town to buy a soda, sandwich, or other items.
Frost admits she likes to believe in people and that may have been part of the problem at Hinesburg General.
She said all it takes is one bad hire and things can go wrong for a business.
“I’m afraid I am terribly naïve,” Frost said.
She said the future of the property is unknown.
The market has an attached four-bedroom apartment in the back. It is vacant. The property is 1.4 acres and its value was reduced during Hinesburg’s recently completed reassessment from $549,200 to $440,900, town records show.
Frost said with all that has happened, the family took a long, deep look.
“It forced us to step back and have a conversation. Is it really worth it?”
In the end, a decision was made to close the doors and move forward.
Hinesburg General employed about eight people and all were told the end was coming.
“I ran it for the last few days,” Frost said.
Then, on June 4, the final purchase was rung up, the final customer left the store and, for the final time, the door was locked.