The news broke on Facebook on Aug. 21: The Cornwall Country Market was up for sale. It swiftly rippled across town, provoking speculation about who and what might take over the building that has stood at the crossroads of Routes 4 and 7 since 1935.
That’s when Harry Breen moved his general store up from the river to take advantage of motor traffic generated by the brand new Bridge No. 560. When it opened, the Newtown Bee called H.W. Breen’s new structure “the most up-to-date store between New Milford and Canaan.”
Breen’s became Monroe’s and Baird’s and had other names in the intervening years, but remained a general store, providing sustenance for workers and travelers and a place for Cornwallians to congregate and trade news.
The latest owners, Idella and James Shepard, have spent the last decade in charge and provided much needed improvements to a building that had become far from up-to-date. They hope these updates will keep it attractive to would-be shopkeepers to follow in their footsteps.
I discussed the history of the place as well as its potential with James Shepard last week. He said that he and Idella had shelved plans 10 years ago to open a market in Oregon to be closer to her family, deciding on Cornwall instead so that they could help care for James’s family in Sharon. He’d already been coming to the general store since the 1990s, and when they decided to buy the store they knew it was in dire need of updates.
“No one wanted to touch this store when we bought it because the needed repairs could never be reconciled with the value,” James recalled. “But we fixed literally everything.” They spent the next 10 years updating the place, the latest improvement being a new leach field for the septic system completed in 2022.
“Cornwall has had some characters and it has been our honor to know so many of them,” James said, recalling regular visits from local celebrities like John Miller, Gus Haller and a fellow named Larry, “who liked a thick slice of onion on his breakfast sandwich.” The market was a place for people to “gather daily and exchange the news, tall tales and old stories,” James said, something the town desperately needs to preserve.
James said there are no plans to close the market before a sale, which he expects to come quickly. Nor does he have any special insight into what will come next for the building, though he has heard the rumors and dreamers talking about coffee shops and diners and bars.
“These would all be fabulous,” he said, but in his view Cornwall “needs a basic general store first.” And he advised the next occupants to use the building for that purpose.
“The only thing someone could do to fail,” he said, “is to change the business model that has made this location a success for 90 years.”
— John W. W. Zeiser
📷: John W. W. Zeiser and Cornwall Historical Society