An unforgettable childhood in 1960s Chester

By Sandy Stiassni

Like many New York Times readers, I read Abby Goodnough’s arresting article about the Dollar General plan to colonize Chester. It brought back treasured early youth snapshots. My grandparents were Chester residents. They become naturalized in the1940s, having emigrated as holocaust survivors from war-occupied Brno, now in Czech Republic.

Sandy Stiassni

My grandfather, a textile magnate, began business in Manhattan, but tired of so-called American big business that seemed to evoke memories of the totalitarian regime that forced his family’s hasty relocation from Europe. He spent more and more time at his hilltop dairy farm in nearby Andover.

Margaret and Ernst Stiassni were among one of the first in Chester to drive a Volkswagen. I recall in the early 1960s, me a tiny tyke, whenever we drove into town, we’d be surrounded by those who politely asked to look “under the hood,” to their utter amazement, located in the trunk.

My grandmother was a revered figure at the local bakery, where she’d share her famous Viennese dessert recipes, which added to store revenue. She insisted upon freshness, and would cast a critical eye upon all baked goods. A small shake of her head would result in instant removal of trays of bread, cakes or cookies.

Atrip with her to IGA Food Store also was memorable. Crackerjack connoisseur, she’d carefully smell each pile of roasted beans, inspect grinders for cleanliness, even see if the bags would tightly bind the ground coffee. Always alert to new food trends, she also tried pre-ground percolated coffees.

The first consumer complaint letter I ever wrote was to president of Maxwell House, on Granny’s behalf, about its coffee. The second was to General Mills, to complain about the freshness of its Bugles snack item. This resulted in much thanks from the IGA store manager: From that day forward, his store , which had been at the end of the delivery line, would receive early morning merchandise drop-offs.

There was a wonderful general store in Chester, which if it had survived, could now be an Internet firm called “Local Vermont Living.” It contained specialized gardening implements, books about literature, agriculture, children’s stories, school supplies, penny candy, furniture and home bric-à-brac, clothing and wide selection of fabrics.

Mein Opa, the “retired” textile executive, was a one-eyed king in this particular venue. He periodically advised the store proprietor; I remember one day he helped him select bolts of cloth for retractable porch shade canopies, a big sales item.

Such poignant reminisces about Chester, Vermont’s past may sound like sniffled, myopic calls to turn the digital clock back to a kinder, gentler epoch, largely vanished from America; but I say, if its good denizens want to experience a qualitatively better lifestyle that I’ve described, then let them! I applaud Chester ‘s earnest desire to fight for and sustain a grassroots, bottoms-up local shopping world!

I‘m not prescient enough to know if the troika of Wal-mart, Target and Dollar General stores will ultimately succeed in eradicating every last locally owned retail venue. Perhaps Chester can remain as it is today, less blemished by 21st century free-market paradigms of poor retail quality, conformity and banality.

Why not empower more citizens to chart their own local destiny, with less interference from multi-national, multi-level corporations? Big Retail simply sees towns like Chester as fodder for a grandiose global marketing vision, grist for their shareholders and valued overseas suppliers, and not as a nice place to live and raise a family.

Sandy Stiassni spent childhood summers in Chester on his grandparents’ farm. These days, in Irvine , CA , the largest master-planned community in the country, he collects rent, unstops clogged toilets, does grassroots advocacy and makes prophesies about a better world, soon to come. Sandy is a founding member of Transition Irvine, part of the global Transition Town movement, to help local citizens prepare for a Post-Peak Oil world full of uncertainty. He can be reached at

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