Letter to the editor: 'Gutting it out' was ill-put
While I appreciate the Independent’s effort to highlight the grit on display by downtown Middlebury businesses in John Flowers’s Aug. 6 article, “Middlebury shops tough it out,” I take exception to the statement that, “not all downtown stakeholders have taken a grin-and-bear-it attitude toward the construction,” and, “a few businesses have remained closed rather than try to gut it out amid the project turmoil.”
First, let’s name those businesses, as anonymity itself suggests stigma. They are: Sabai Sabai, Kiss the Cook, Main Street Stationery, Danforth Pewter, and — my own — the Vermont Book Shop. I can’t speak for my fellow merchants’ rationale in choosing to remain “closed,” but I certainly don’t think any of them ought to be characterized as not “[gutting] it out.” Tip, the owner of Sabai Sabai, ran take-out orders to waiting cars during the COVID shut-down and then stayed open well beyond the restart of construction; Kiss the Cook takes online orders and makes them available for pick up on Saturdays; Greg Tomb, owner of Main Street Stationery, is in his shop most days, filling orders and delivering them curbside; and Danforth Pewter has an alternate (primary) location on Seymour Street.
As for the Vermont Book Shop, while we don’t yet allow in-person browsing at our Main Street location, we are anything but closed, and we are very much gutting it out. In fact, we’ve been gutting it out since 2016, when in anticipation of the bridge & rail project, rather than closing or selling my business in distress, I started exploring ways for our customers to shop with us without having to park on the outskirts of downtown and walk into a noisy and dirty construction zone. Or worse, simply choose to go elsewhere. The opening of Ollie’s Other Place on Washington Street was, in fact, an early, if unsuccessful, experiment in securing an alternative location. And last fall, at the invitation of Stacey Rainey and Mary Cullinane of Community Barn Ventures, we opened a stall on the Public Market level of their stunning redevelopment of the Stone Mill. Since the Market’s reopening very shortly after Governor Scott lifted the COVID-related restrictions on retail businesses, the VBS stall has been comfortably browsable and frequently refreshed, and our customers have had a clean, secure, and easily accessible location to pick up their orders. It is exactly the strategy we had in mind when we inked the deal over a year ago.
I agree with Megan Mandigo’s assessment in your article that there was a glimmer of a silver lining in the timing of all this, in that our responses to the pandemic were like training for the construction. Since the beginning of the COVID crisis, we at VBS have been proactive in marketing our fully searchable and e-commerce enabled website, offsite and curbside pick-up, and complimentary home delivery services by way of social media and extensive online and print advertising, in these very pages, as a matter of fact. During the shut-down, I worked long, lonesome hours to maintain continuity of my business, taking and filling telephone orders, receiving new merchandise, and providing cheer to passers-by in the form of free “blind-date” books on the sidewalk. As soon as it was prudent, I brought back some booksellers and we transformed ourselves into an order-fulfillment machine, processing dozens of web orders every day. Our work reached its peak in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, when our community turned to us for the resources they needed to become better allies in the fight against racism. Today, we continue to take orders online; field customer phone calls and emails; update our website with new and notable titles, bookseller recommendations, and bestseller lists; fill customer orders for pick-up at the Stone Mill, shipping, and delivery; and receive new merchandise for the busy fall bookselling season. We are also overhauling our inventory and preparing to reopen the store with an improved, more physical-distance-friendly floor plan. If this is not “gutting it out,” then I don’t know what is.
Lastly, on the matter of taking a “grin-and-bear-it attitude,” all I can say is, “oh, please.” Of course we downtown business and property owners were not pleased when we heard what this project would entail. And it has entailed what we feared. And then some, thanks to COVID-19. Some of us have sued (Nedde); some of us have protested loudly and publicly, even destroying meaningful friendships over it (Hiland); and some of us have just moaned and whinged to those who would listen (yours truly). Mostly, though, we’ve done what wise people do, which is to accept what we cannot change and to do what we must to get through it. (I’ll even admit to enjoying some of it; I mean, what a crane!) So, give us a break: be patient and kind, and understand that this is a one-two punch of once-in-a-lifetime proportions. And please, give credit where credit is due, which is to all of us who are gutting it out every day in our own ways to make a comeback when it will matter most.
Vermont Book Shop
Editor’s note: We apologize if we left the impression that the businesspeople were somehow folding in the face of adversity; that was not our intention. We understood that businesses in downtown Middlebury are coping with coronavirus social distancing rules in addition to rail tunnel construction upheaval, but we didn’t make it clear that stores that are closed to in-person customer visits are doing so because of health concerns, not construction-related concerns. We hope that we did leave the impression that downtown Middlebury’s business community is remarkably resilient and even optimistic in the face of these business challenges.