A lifestyle choice: Karen Hogness and Dennis Avery continue to cherish community, post-retirement


  • Dennis Avery’s great-great-grandfather, Amos. L. Avery, started a business in 1861 that remained in the family for more than 150 years. Karen Hogness joined the business in 1974 when she married Dennis Avery, and the couple spent more than four decades serving as shopkeepers. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Karen Hogness and Dennis Avery share many interests, including music. In the 1970s, the couple helped form the band Small Change, continuing with the group throughout their decades of running Avery’s, Charlemont’s general store. The band features Avery on dobro and lap steel guitar, Dick Boehmer on washtub bass, Hogness on mandolin and Larry LeBlanc on guitar, with several band members singing. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Dennis Avery is renowned as the longtime co-owner, with Karen Hogness, of A.L. Avery & Son, Charlemont’s general store. Now retired, Avery performs widely with several local bands, singing and playing dobro and lap steel guitar. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Karen Hogness and Dennis Avery were 22-year-old newlyweds when they joined his family business, A.L. Avery & Son, Charlemont’s longtime general store. The couple met at Oberlin College, both comparative religion majors. They celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/STEVE AUTIO

  • Karen Hogness and Dennis Avery were 22-year-old newlyweds when they joined his family business, A.L. Avery & Son, Charlemont’s longtime general store. Though they worked long hours, six days a week, the couple made sure to get out into nature with their children and, later, grandchildren. Today, Hogness calls herself a nature elder and mentors kindergartners, while Avery pursues his love of music. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • For more than four decades, Dennis Avery and Karen Hogness ran Charlemont’s iconic general store. Now retired, Hogness happily mentors young children in the natural world, while Avery flourishes as a musician. The couple shares the belief that with retirement comes the delightful duty of serving the community in new ways. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

For the Recorder
Published: 9/18/2023 7:54:48 PM

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part series about Charlemont resident Karen Hogness. This segment explores her collaborations with Dennis Avery, her husband and longtime business partner.

Karen Hogness knew exactly how her husband, Dennis Avery, would spend much of his time upon their retirement after 34 years of owning — and 42 years of working at — A.L. Avery & Son, Charlemont’s general store.

“Dennis is a lifelong musician,” said Hogness, who’s also musically inclined. “We’re in a band called Small Change, which started in 1976, before we had kids.” Hogness plays mandolin, Avery plays lap steel guitar and dobro, and both are singers.

Hogness loves music, but felt there was something else out there waiting for her. She remained open to discovering her next chapter while celebrating her husband’s prodigious talents. Avery performs and sits in with several other groups, including The Uncles (with Rob Adams and John Clark), R&D (his duo with Adams), Pat & Tex LaMountain, and OGA (with Michael and Chris Orlen).

Finding her calling

As featured in a recent column (Sept. 5), Hogness’ path became clear when she volunteered to mentor kindergartners as a “nature elder.” She offered assistance to her granddaughter Elsa’s teacher, Emily Marker, and it was a match made in heaven. Seven years on, Hogness said, “Emily shares my belief that kids belong out in nature.” Hogness notes that many local hilltown schools have vibrant outdoor programs, and there’s similar interest in southern Vermont, where her grandchildren live. But the Academy School in Brattleboro — where her grandkids attended elementary school — is uniquely positioned to offer outdoor experiences because the school borders substantial, privately owned, undeveloped land, and collaborates with the owners.

That’s how Hogness — known as “Sparky” to her school community — found her calling as a nature elder, and it’s an avocation deeply rooted in her own childhood.

“I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s when kids were turned loose outside with very little adult supervision. I always preferred being outside.” Growing up in Seattle as one of five children, “whenever my family went on vacation, we went camping,” Hogness said. “I also spent a big chunk of every summer in Montana with my grandparents, and got to hike in the Tetons.”

It wasn’t until adulthood, after she moved to the Northeast, that Hogness “started walking extensively by myself in the woods.” Despite being a busy working mother, Hogness attended tracking seminars and educational programs when possible.

“I love tracking [animals] in winter and learning to identify animal signs in all seasons,” she said. “There’s so much to notice: scat, tracks, scratch marks on trees and odors.”

Hogness’ enthusiasm is contagious.

“There’s so much to see! Mud prints, impressions, trails. I don’t claim to be an expert or master tracker, the way many are in this area, but I love it,” she said. It’s easy to see why “Sparky” is treasured by children and adults alike.

Coming together

But how did a young couple who met in an Oberlin College French class in 1970 end up running a general store in Charlemont? The answers revolve around lifestyle preferences, legacies and sterling characters.

“It wasn’t exactly my life plan to run a general store in a small town,” said Hogness, “but it was a lifestyle choice. The funny thing is, my grandfather ran a general store in the tiny town of Plains, Montana. So it’s ironic that I ended up [at Avery’s].”

Dennis Avery hadn’t intended to take on the family business, which was started in 1861 by his great-great-grandfather, Amos L. Avery. Yet in 1974, when they were 22 years old, Avery and Hogness began working at the store, which at the time was owned by Avery’s father and uncle. That same year, the couple graduated from college and got married.

“My father was hesitant about our plan; he thought we could do better elsewhere,” said Avery. “But I grew up in this village, and Karen and I were determined to live and raise our children here.”

In 1982, Hogness and Avery assumed partnership, becoming the fifth generation of store owners. And Avery had worked there as a teen, enabling him to meet members of the community and surrounding areas. The pair also put to use tenets they learned as liberal arts students, and comparative religion majors in particular.

“That’s as good a basis for running a general store as anything I can imagine,” said Hogness. “It’s all about people.”

Hogness said their work was supposed to be five days a week, “but really, it was six, and 10 to 12 hours a day.”

Despite the demanding schedule, Hogness made sure to get out into the woods with her family on a regular basis.

“Sunday was my day,” she said. “Off we’d go.”

Back in his hometown, Avery reconnected with places he loved.

“As a kid, every day after school, I’d head off into the woods,” Avery said. “My friends and I did lots of camping in places you could just walk to.”

Love of the outdoors is yet another thing Avery and Hogness have in common. Yet they were also “aware of the kind of life [running the store] involved,” said Avery. Vacations were rare, but they went camping as a family.

Despite work demands, Avery appreciated the upsides of living in a tight-knit community with interesting people.

“As an example of this area’s richness, when I looked for a flute teacher as a teen, I was able to take lessons from an Ashfield resident who taught at Smith College,” said Avery, who’d learned to play the clarinet as a youngster. “My teacher, Aldei Gregoire, was originally from Austria, and I got to hang out with someone who imported harpsichords to the U.S. That’s the way this place is.”

Another early blessing, said Avery, was meeting local music legend Alice Parker. “She’s like family to me.”

An evolving business

Avery appreciates the people he grew up with, as well as those who went before. He knew well the store’s third-generation owner (his grandfather, Henry L. Avery Sr.) and of course fourth-generation owners (Henry L. Avery Jr. and Burton W. Avery, his father and uncle), but Dennis Avery wishes he’d known the second-generation owner, his great-grandfather, Oscar C. Avery.

Dennis Avery is fascinated by the cultural and societal changes that took place in O.C. Avery’s era.

“Today, we think the internet has exploded our world, but I think the world went through much more fundamental changes while O.C. lived,” he said. “And he moved forward with it.”

In the latter half of the 19th century, Avery said, “Charlemont and surrounding towns went through a singular change. By 1900, small subsistence farms were largely abandoned in favor of new opportunities in growing mill towns, which provided steady work with steady pay right through the starvation seasons of late fall to early spring.”

Bigger towns like Shelburne Falls, North Adams, Millers Falls, Turners Falls and Colrain had more to offer, “but the woods around here are littered with the remains of small water mills,” said Avery. “In Rowe, the Davis Mine was in full gear. Hawley was still one, much larger village, and Heath was much larger, too.” Because Charlemont was on the railroad line, it became a hub for much of this new activity, and O.C. Avery owned the dominant store.

“[In that era], a successful man could involve himself in a wide variety of things,” said Avery, “including private banking, land investment, and the trading and brokerage of forest and farm goods, small manufactured goods and home crafts.”

Avery said his great-grandfather most likely had no formal education beyond high school, yet he was innovative and successful.

“He had the head start of growing up in a store, working for his dad, and becoming a partner — hence the store name, A.L. Avery & Son.”

Avery is fascinated by his great-grandfather’s “smarts, courage, perseverance and imagination — the stuff of a person’s mind that can create something out of such an expanding world as he was in. He started in a world of wood heat, pens and paper, no electricity, horses and wagons, and then witnessed the powerful new influences of the railroad, electricity, telephones, trucks and more.” Dennis Avery followed that lead when he “computerized the store and bought goods from all over the world via companies all over the U.S.”

“Each generation met the changes in their own times,” he said. “That’s how we stayed in business for 155 years.”

Even though Hogness and Avery’s children, Luke and Tessa, chose not to take up the family business, they follow in the family tradition of helping others: Luke in Minnesota working for a non-profit housing project, and Tessa as a teacher in Brattleboro. Tessa’s children, Jude (14) and Elsa (11), represent the seventh generation, counting from Amos L. Avery.

Hogness and Avery, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year, have positively impacted thousands of locals and visitors. Now Avery provides joy through his music, while Hogness delights kindergartners in the natural world. She hopes to continue doing so well into her 80s and 90s. She said, “Everybody needs a Sparky in their life.”

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope,” and an artist, musician and mother. Readers may contact her at eveline@amandlachorus.org.


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