New operator sought for Robie's, a beloved Hooksett landmarkBy HARRY KOZLOWSKI
Special to the Union Leader September 25. 2013 11:14PM
IT WAS AROUND 9 a.m. Wednesday and a few regulars were having coffee at Robie's Country Store. Some were waiting for proprietor Deb Chouinard to bring them breakfast.
A few moments later, the customer count doubled. That's how things go at Robie's — quiet one minute, busy the next.
On this particular day, two old friends talked over coffee, and a group from a local church shared stories and a few laughs. Others ran in to grab food and go.
If there was any sadness over the news that their favorite town hangout was closing at the end of the week, it didn't show — until you asked.
"I've been coming here for 30 years," said Edna Murray. "I get coffee and meet friends. Sometimes one, sometimes a whole group."
Almost on cue, two of Murray's friends arrived. "I'm going to miss this place" she said.
Chouinard was busy in the back filling orders. It was just her, keeping the place humming. And it's been just her a lot lately. "I'm tired," she said.
Robie's final day will be Sunday.
"Business is OK, not great," said Chouinard. "I don't have any help. I can't find anyone willing to do real work."
Robie's Country Store has been a fixture in Hooksett — in one form or another — for 126 years. Five generations of the Robie family operated the store until 1997.
Dot Robie still lives about two blocks from the store that she and her late husband, Lloyd, operated until 1997. "The people who shopped there were our friends and neighbors," she said.
Robie spoke of how train engineers would stop for coffee and sandwiches; the tracks run right by the store.
"They would blow their whistle when they were coming in," she said. "By the time they stopped, I'd have a fresh pot ready."
Robie's was the town post office until 1968; several Robie family members served as postmaster. Before there was 9-1-1, residents would call the store in emergencies. Robie recalled that a neighbor phoned the store for help after losing his fingers in a snowblower accident.
Robie's is also a museum of New Hampshire politics. The store's walls are adorned with campaign buttons and stickers going back decades. No presidential candidate serious about winning the state's first-in-the-nation primary would miss the chance for a photo opportunity at Robie's.
In 1997, Lloyd and Dot sold the store to the Robie's Country Store Historic Preservation Corporation, a nonprofit group dedicated to saving the town landmark.
President Robert Schroeder said the corporation owns the building and its memorabilia. Since 1997, there have been three independent operators. David and Debbie Chouinard have run the store and cafe since 2003.
"We intend to find another operator as soon as possible," said Schroeder. "That's the way we envision it and that's our goal. We want a place to have coffee, sit and chat — a place to gather."
Robie's often gets more business from out-of-town folks than the locals.
"These guys come every single weekend; they love the food," Chouinard said. "But we don't get the local Hooksett people."
The Ladies' Guild of the Holy Rosary Church in Hooksett made Robie's its spot to gather over coffee after Mass.
"We don't know where we will go; we'll probably disband," said the guild's Anne Emond. Another member, Pauline Pellerin, has been a Robie's regular since 1954.
Peter Sartorelli of Bow, another regular and a friend of Edna Murray and the Chouinards, once owned Pizzarelli's in Concord. Sartorelli knows how fickle clientele can be, but as a restaurant owner he also loved the connections he made with his customers. "I like to talk with my customers," he said. "This is the kind of place to do that."