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Faith in Vermont: Goodbye, Ben Franklin

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Posted on June 5, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



The news came on the heels of other strange spring tidings in Addison County: There were warnings of severe storms bringing high winds and flooding, followed by fire danger alerts. There were the multiple bear sightings around Chipman Hill, as a mother and her three cubs beat a path of destruction between backyard bird feeders and compost bins. 

And then this: Ben Franklin, the five-and-dime that’s been a fixture of Middlebury’s Main Street since 1943, will close its doors in August.

We’d known this was coming: The store has been for sale for the past few years, while its inventory has been slowly diminishing. But, as no buyer had yet stepped forward, it was easy to push aside fears of closure – or cling to the hope that some buyer would keep the store in its current form, maybe even breathe new life into it. 

The future of Ben Franklin is still unclear. There is no buyer at this time. All remaining inventory is on sale at reduced rates, and judging from the look of things when I shopped there with my daughters yesterday, it seems optimistic to expect that the store will have enough left to sell through August. 

Each time I’ve visited Ben Franklin over the past month, I’ve had a painful realization of just how much I’m going to miss it.

It seems like an unlikely candidate for this degree of affection: a somewhat dingy, fluorescent-lit repository of everything from school and office supplies to housewares, children’s toys to Vermont souvenirs, scrapbooking materials to fabrics – and most of these of not particularly high quality. 

But that was the peculiar charm of Ben Franklin. Whenever I shopped there – and I did so with some regularity – I’d find a treasure at every turn: Ben Franklin carries 3-packs of plain white t-shirts! It has the jewelry-making supplies my oldest daughter wants! It has the exact Playmobil set I’d been tempted to order online!It has party supplies! Math flashcards! Aquariums! Every time, I’d think: “Next time, I should just come here first.” You could find almost everything at Ben Franklin. It was affordable. And it was right on Main Street, conveniently located on the same block as the town offices, Ilsley Public Library, and the movie theater. 

Not only that, but it had employees who knew us; who were understanding and kind when I entered the store with four young and rowdy daughters in tow. April Smith, in particular, who oversaw ordering for the children’s toy section, has a special place in our family’s hearts. April always asked what we were looking for, and steered us in the right direction for more children’s birthday gifts than I can count. 

When we’d take out-of-town friends to Main Street, they often commented on the presence of Ben Franklin – particularly if they’d grown up in a town with a (now defunct) Ben Franklin franchise. “Every town should have a Ben Franklin,” one friend remarked wistfully.

And now Middlebury won’t.

This may seem overly dramatic; after all, turnover on Main Street is hardly new. Today’s Main Street bears almost no resemblance to the Main Street that existed when our family moved to Vermont – and that was only seven years ago. The news of Ben Franklin closing was followed quickly with news of other changes on or near Main Street: Clay’s clothing store is closing; the Town Hall Theater bought The Diner, with plans to tear it down; Carol’s Hungry Mind Café is on the ropes (again); the Otter Creek Bakery is for sale. When discussing the state of Main Street with my fellow Middleburians, conversation quickly turns to bet-placing on which business will go belly-up next.

Constant change can lead to desensitization, which may be why, when I bring up the fate of Ben Franklin with local friends, I get the feeling that people aren’t all that bothered. It’s not keeping them up nights that Main Street may die a slow death. “I’m not sure that Middlebury deserves to have a thriving downtown,” one friend shrugged.

Does Ben Franklin matter? After all, they didn’t sell anything there that Middlebury’s citizens can’t get elsewhere, either in one of the bigger stores on the edge of town, or online. We’ll remain happy consumers. Does it matter if downtown Middlebury becomes a stretch of art galleries and boutiques geared more to out-of-town visitors than to the local population? 

I think it matters. I think a vibrant downtown, where people can walk around and interact with each other, and where locally owned business encourage connection and reflect local culture, is essential to a healthy community. Because I love our community, I want it to have a vibrant downtown. 

A downtown that dies as it’s replaced by chain stores outside of Main Street is, in many ways, becoming the story of America. The fact that Middlebury was different is one of the things that brought our family to Vermont, and a major reason why we stay. My husband and I have spent plenty of time in towns “with people who jump in and out of cars all day, shopping at impersonal franchises[.]”

That quote is from singer/songwriter Dar William’s book, What I Found in A Thousand Towns, the book that currently graces my nightstand. I began reading it before I found out about Ben Franklin, but the timing seems providential. 

I don’t have answers to Middlebury’s current downtown woes (which are being further compounded by a major rail bridge construction project), but here are three concepts that keep coming up in conversations with local friends:

1.   Parking.The lack of parking is probably the single biggest complaint about downtown Middlebury. People simply aren’t going to bother coming downtown if they know they’re going to have to drive around looking for parking. Until we can figure out a way to provide more parking options, we’ll probably have to accept that the peripheral shopping areas with large parking lots will be more attractive than downtown businesses.

2.   Playgrounds.I use the word “playgrounds” for alliterative value, to refer to both actual playgrounds and to family-friendly spaces. Middlebury has many young families residing in and around it, but a dearth of good public playground spaces – none of which are in downtown Middlebury. A playground sited on the underutilized town Green, or in the park where the old town offices used to be, would encourage young families to eat and shop on Main Street. (Parking would have to be solved first, of course.)

The fact that there is no playground within easy walking distance of downtown reflects a larger issue: Vermonters continue to bemoan the fact that young people and families are leaving the state, without doing much of anything to make the state livable for young people and families. I sat, open-mouthed, at a meeting about proposed renovations for Ilsley Library (which included lifting the children’s room out of the lightless, musty basement where it’s currently housed), while an older town resident blasted making changes for the children since the number of children in Vermont is declining. 

I can think of no better way to sign our state’s death warrant than to refuse to make child- and family-friendly accommodations on the faulty logic that children and families continue to leave. They will continue to leave – not just Main Street, but the entire state – if things like affordable housing, quality educational options, libraries, and playgrounds are deprioritized. 

3.   Positive Proximity. This is another Dar Williams term; it means creating spaces where people in a community can meet, interact, and exchange ideas for the communal good. Places with high positive proximity include cafes, diners, spaces for live music and performances, senior and rec centers – in short, exactly the sort of places that Middlebury’s Main Street lacks or is losing. 

So, that’s my two cents, which is all I have left. I have poured plenty of money into Ben Franklin, Carol’s Hungry Mind, and other local businesses over the years, and it’s discouraging to think that it wasn’t enough. Still, I take hope in knowing that there are other people who care deeply about doing what’s best for Middlebury’s downtown. I’d like to be one of those people, too; I hope many of us will be. We’ve got more time now that we won’t be shopping at Ben Franklin. 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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