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Collitts ready to retire from Ripton store; N.Y. Times article spurs nationwide interest

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Posted on April 12, 2018 |
By John Flowers



RiptonStore7110.jpg
RUNNING A COUNTRY store is more than a job — it’s a way of life. Dick Collitt and his spouse, Sue, know that; they have owned and faithfully operated the Ripton Country Store since 1976. Now in their early 70s, they are ready to retire and looking to sell the iconic store on Route 125 in the heart of the Green Mountains. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

RIPTON — If nationally renowned environmental activist and bestselling author Bill McKibben ever decides to do some moonlighting, he might consider donning a Realtor’s jacket.

When the Middlebury College scholar in residence learned Dick and Sue Collitt were having some trouble finding a solid buyer for the Ripton Country Store, he offered to write a story on their behalf for The New York Times.

Less than a week after McKibben’s op-ed piece appeared in the March 30 issue of the Times, the Collitts had received 50 offers deemed credible enough to warrant follow-ups. The couple’s phone has been ringing virtually non-stop with calls from people hoping to acquire the property.

Others have been stopping by the big red clapboard building right on Route 125 in Ripton village wanting to simply have a folksy conversation with them about what it’s like to run a small country store. There’s something particularly inviting about a non-descript rocking chair, a rustic wood stove, a hot cup of coffee and the reminiscences of a friendly store-keep to warm your heart on a frigid winter morning.

“Residents are supportive; they think it’s pretty cool,” Dick Collitt said of the national exposure the Ripton County Store has received during the past few weeks.

“(Our real estate agen) has been getting so many calls right now that he’s asking (buyers) to email him,” Collitt added.

Dick Collitt was a banker living in suburban Philadelphia in 1976 when he saw the Ripton store advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal. He and Sue went to check the place out. Two months later they and their two sons, Michael and Matthew, had moved into the apartment above the store.

“We just fell in love with it and bought it,” he said.

The previous two owners had parted with the property after only three years each. Some townspeople saw it as trend likely to be repeated.

“People were skeptical about our being able to stick with it,” Collitt said. “A lot of people at that time bought little country inns and stores, stuff like that, and they thought it would be cool to be in the boondocks. And a lot of those people didn’t stick.”

But the Collitts knew they wouldn’t be short-timers.

“We were here for the duration,” Collitt said of the couple’s dedication to the small enterprise that first opened in 1879. “We bought the store to run it for real.”

They quickly learned the store would become more than a daytime job. It would become a way of life. They are the most recent stewards of what has been a beloved townwide amenity for tourists and locals alike in need of anything ranging from a gallon of milk to a hunting knife.

“The local folks would expect us to give them gas at 10 p.m.,” Collitt chuckled. “That happened a lot…”

After a while, though, the locals respected the store hours and the Collitts moved out of the on-site apartment to allow separation between their personal and professional lives.

Still, until recently, the couple covered all 12 hours of each working day themselves. They’ve allowed themselves one day off per year: Christmas.

“The last time Sue and I went away was around 15 years ago when our son was married out in Colorado,” Dick recalled. “We went there for a long weekend.”

The Collitts’ dedication to Ripton’s store and its residents earned the couple a touching tribute in this year’s Ripton annual report.

“They are not only interested in preserving the store’s past, but also in the store’s future,” reads the essay, penned by residents Jorene Doria and Jane Phinney.

“Dick and Sue have never forgotten old-fashioned caring for their neighbors.”

That caring has included a landline to help for stranded motorists — essential in a town that offers next to no cell service. The store has been a clearinghouse for important town news, such as during flooding from the adjacent Middlebury River. And the Collitts have also become confidants to many in town, receiving news they’re careful not to repeat.

Along with serving as the town’s official market and its unofficial clearinghouse for information, the Ripton Country Store has subbed as a local post office for around three decades. It put the 215 old-school P.O. boxes into service after a the town’s last commissioned postmistress, Hilda Billings, decided she couldn’t host them in her home anymore.

The Collitts set up the small wall of P.O. boxes where their gift section used to be. Fortunately, sales haven’t really suffered as many folks buy something while picking up their mail, Collitt noted. They also sell stamps, weigh letters and offer a flat rate for packages, thus saving people a trip to East Middlebury, four miles down the mountain.

While they’ve enjoyed their time with the store, both are in their early 70s and are ready to move out from behind the counter. It was around a year ago that they decided to put the store on the market, after Dick began having some health problems. He’s now on the mend, but they still believe it’s time to bid farewell to their old friend.

Unfortunately, neither of their two grown children are keen on becoming a second-generation owner/operator of the Ripton Country Store. So they’re resigned to selling it to a stranger who can meet the $225,000 asking price and convince them they’ll fully commit to the enterprise.

THE STORE HAS boasted 215 post office boxes for around three decades. Store owners say many folks buy something while picking up their mail.

Independent photo/ Trent Campbell

McKibben, a frequent customer and longtime Ripton resident, made a wonderful pitch for the store in his Times op-ed. He portrayed it in the style of a personal ad with this throwback of a store offering a true slice of Americana and seeking the perfect match for an owner attuned to that lifestyle.

“So here’s the pitch,” he wrote. “$225,00 gets you the most classic of country stores, not in a Colonial Williamsburg kind of way but in a slightly sagging kind of way — there’s a potbellied wood stove up against the deli counter, right next to the coffee pot. There’s penny candy against the wall (Atomic Fireballs!). And pretty much everything else: brake fluid, animal crackers, 3-in-One oil, leather boot laces. The latest issue of North American Whitetail (‘the big buck authority’). Eggs from local hens; pickled beets and sweet relish that some of the neighbors have put up. Lasagna noodles, rock salt, kitty litter, meatloaf mix, clothespins, starch, cupcake papers.”

McKibben is pleased his New York Times piece has drawn potential buyers.

“It makes me very happy for the town, because it seems likely the store will stay open, and indeed be run in the right spirit,” McKibben said through an email. “I tried to not be overly romantic in the article — to emphasize that it was a lot of hard work, and that you'd have to be serious about it, because the town would be depending on you.

“It also makes me happy to think that there's a sizable group of people out in the world who yearn for something other than texting each other,” McKibben added. “Even, or maybe especially, in an America where our president demonstrates meanness daily, I think there are lots of people looking for community. And Ripton is a very fine community.”

The extra publicity has also been good for business. Those who come over to check out the store invariably end up making a purchase.

Collitt thanked McKibben for his literary assist.

“He’s is very fond of the town and the town is real fond of the store,” Collitt said. “It was wonderful. It was a super piece. His writing is fantastic.”

On this particular day, a regular customer came in for an 18-pack of Bud. As she exited, she says to Dick Collitt, “My daughter wants to buy the store.”

Without missing a beat, Dick replies jovially, “Send her over with cash. Money talks.”

Any serious inquiries about the Ripton Country Store should be emailed to [email protected].

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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